Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Pac-Man, "Bling" and the power of simplicity in BI Dashboards

It’s hard to argue against the requirement for every Business Intelligence professional to display the fundamental competency of efficient and effective communication. As I began in my previous post, this skill appears to take on even more importance when employing visual media in a BI Dashboard.

If you, like me grew up in 80’s and 90’s exposed to video games, music television, gadgets and technology generally, the addictively playable nature of Pac-Man on the Atari 2600, Tetris on the Nintendo Game Boy and my eventual giving in and buying a Nintendo Wii (despite thinking I was past buying video games consoles in my thirties) all testify to a common end: Simple is particularly compelling… if the underlying idea is sound, and it’s packaged (and marketed) correctly.

Today, solid demand for Nintendo’s Wii appears to continue; despite some pretty uncertain economic times playing out and Apple continues to add to its customer base regardless of the rest of the sector struggling. If you are an owner of Apple’s iPod Touch, it’s pretty likely you were attracted to it on a number of levels; the slim nature of the device, it’s minimalist exterior design and the general ambience of “cool” that seems to pervade all of their products and stores. I’ll bet that even if those and other unmentioned external factors didn’t persuade you to part with your hard earned money, a touch screen user interface that starts with that first finger swipe from left to right to unlock it probably had you hooked. Have you ever needed to read the instruction manual for the iPod? No, probably not. The user interface is almost universally recognized as being uncannily intuitive – something that didn’t come about by luck or chance. It isn’t that long ago that my Fiancé’s parents were jostling us for top scores on the Wii Sports Bowling, and they are not traditionally the video game types; simplicity again shining through. Is this one of the fundamental differences between a sale and no sale?

I love this quote by comedian Marcus Brigstocke (often misattributed to a CEO of Nintendo). It has a resonance that is difficult in which to not see the irony:

"Computer games don't affect kids, I mean if Pac Man affected us as kids, we'd all be running around in darkened rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive music."

The “munching pills” aside, repetitive music is often seen as pretty simple once you peel back to its core elements, but its popularity doesn’t look like dropping off anytime soon. There isn’t a mutual exclusivity to enjoying repetitive music and much more complex musical arrangements, but there is something that hooks you with its simplicity that is more than just a little primal.

So by my (probably flawed) rationale, a mixture of a simple user interface design masking some incredibly sophisticated & powerful behind the scenes technology that you implicitly trust delivering an efficient and effective message appears to have a fair chance of getting buy in on a large scale because the potential impact to an individual is likely to be significant.

If we return to the original focus of this particular blog; that of Good Dashboard Design practices and Visual Presentation Media set in a Business Intelligence context, this rationale is firmly reliant on a “flawless” execution of this potential, and is often (sadly) where things come unstuck. I plan to write more on User Adoption of BI Dashboards in a future posting; this is a point important enough to warrant a post all to itself.

But let’s get back to the world of BI and explore this potent idea of simplicity mixed with good dashboard design practices further.

If you’ve had exposure to Operational Reporting with the likes of Crystal Reports or Query, Reporting & Analysis with Business Objects Web Intelligence, you’ll have become very used to Tables of numbers and text with perhaps some relatively limited visual display media. But, with as many as 85% of corporate Business Users reported to not be confident using BI query and analysis tools, there is an undisputed need for a simpler way to communicate an efficient and effective message about what is happening to the key metrics in the area of business you’re personally interested in, that of well designed BI Dashboards.

There are a number of purists that would advocate stringently adhering to an extensive list of best practices when designing an efficient and effective dashboard. Think how many times have you happened on a dashboard (or perhaps even created one) that is the stereotypical 4 equal sized areas in a two by two configuration, with a chart (let’s say a bar chart) in the top left, a Pie chart (say) in the top right, a Line Graph in the bottom left and then (shock horror) an Area chart in the bottom right area. You can almost tell that the 4th chart was only chosen because the designer felt that it would look better if all the charts were different. Although there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a 2 by 2 style dashboard, this approach to the content; this “sleep-dashboarding” (kind of like sleep-walking but… well you get the picture) certainly shows a need to understand and encourage best practices.

Aside from their interesting use in Micro Charting, I must confess my dislike of Pie Charts for anything other than 4 or less pieces of pie (they really don’t convey the comparison of part-to-whole data as well as a Bar Chart). I’ve floated this purist approach before, at first introduction sessions with prospective audiences for BI Dashboards. Despite my feeling quietly confident that they would profess their undying appreciation of best practice’s finer subtleties coming together, they, instead, display the kind of shoulder-shrugging indifference not seen since they were given the choice between a Bar Chart and a Column Chart to visualize a key metric. Yet, if I show them a Spinning XGlobe without even fully explaining where it is used appropriately at the same juncture, the difference is staggering. Interest is attained for a sufficiently long enough period of time. The inflated expectation is paid off with a visual reward. There is a palpable sense that you have earned the right to continue showing what is often referred to around these parts as “bling” (a lovely hip hop slang term which refers to expensive jewelry and other accoutrements). But wait, surely showing dashboards that may well be exciting to look at flies in the face of good dashboard design principles? Dashboards aren’t about exciting, they’re about communicating the information you need to achieve your business objectives. As this isn’t territory to stay purely in for too long, we may be justified. That isn’t saying that the spinning globe example from Donald doesn’t have its place or that it represents poor design, it doesn’t, but may not feature in as many well designed BI dashboards as a Bullet Chart or a Sparkline.

In simple (the overall theme here of course) terms, the purist best practices when designing an efficient and effective dashboard could be seen to represent one end of a single continuum where a “blinging” dashboard could well be interpreted as the other end. Introducing dashboards to a potential consumer or purchaser by only showing the purist form may not excite and entertain those that require dashboards, but by winning that privilege, by initially paying off an implied need to see exciting dashboards, we can then move to show BI Dashboard best practices and explain why they help to achieve key business objectives efficiently and effectively.

This approach has consistently paid off, and has afforded me the right to show more of what will allow great value to be drawn from a particularly powerful medium and start the inevitable evolution towards more interactive visual representations of abstract data - BI dashboards that help users to discover patterns, trends & outliers, show relationships, present the overview and the detail when needed, co-ordinate and motivate individuals and instigate real action that has a positive impact on the bottom line of a business.

1 comment:

  1. You really do speak the truth, I could "sell" any flashy(sorry for the pun) dashboard to my user community as long as it looked good. Doesn't matter if the information even helps make a decision easier...which should really be the developers goal.