Dashboards, part 3 - in rows or columns? And a Paul Simon song... 

This is the third in a series of email updates on dashboards. The first reviewed a typical dashboard – a page of graphs – and explained why it was bad. The next then took the graphs’ underlying data and tweaked it – what could we do instead? Today we tweak it a bit more.

Last month we showed the underlying data as an awful default Excel template, then turned it into Figure 1 (and to save space in this email, it shows just five of the data rows and five of the months’ figures). Ignore its repetitive row labels for now, I wish to do something else first.

Transpose to transform? Should numbers be in rows or columns? In Figure 2, scan along the row. The eye reads a number, jumps a gap, reads another number, jumps another gap, and so on. Gaps between numbers hinder.

Figure 3 redoes it, but this time in a column. By transposing the table, it’s better. It's a bit of a paradox – we read left to right, but find it easier to scan down a column of numbers than across a row. Also, when we scan down, our brain can screen out ‘9’s that are common to all numbers – in one quick sweep of the eye, we read: 4, 7, 2, 6, 8, 3.

So, by putting comparable numbers in columns, we more easily compare the comparable (and if you want this logic applied to a debt-ageing report, let me know and I’ll cover it in a future email).

Let’s transpose Figure 1. See Figure 4 (and it now shows all rows and columns, not just five of each).

Scan down a column – it’s easy to see numbers over time. Notice that numbers are increasingly greyed down – recent ones in black (they’re most important, so are prominent), recent ones in dark grey, old ones in light grey (least important). This greying-down is a neat trick for big tables – a big table is intimidating for readers when they first see it… so many numbers, where do I start? Greying down selected bits makes the table look less daunting, plus creates visual hierarchies and distinctions.

Notice also the top right label: ‘Gun (new line) Confisc- (new line) ations’. It isn’t the normal word-wrapping we’d get in an Excel cell. Rather, I typed: “Gun” (Alt Enter), “Confisc-“ (Alt Enter), “ations” (Enter). I get the word-wrap I want, not the word-wrap that the column width gives me. Neat.

Changing word-wraps…? Is that a bit OCD? Obsessive? Perhaps, but remember: it’s not easy to do good dashboards – the devil really is in the detail. Then again, if good dashboards were easy to do, we’d all be doing them. But we don’t. Most people do bad dashboards. Great dashboards are as rare as hens’ teeth. So if yours is great, you’ll shine. It’ll impress bosses for many months after. It’s the gift that keeps giving.

So, this email update has shown when to put in columns, not rows. And how to get the word-wrap we want. Together, they further improve our dashboard a bit. But we're still not there yet. To be continued the next month.

Time for the fun stuff. Do please read the 'Fifty Ways' section that's further below - it kickstarts a theme that continues through this email-series. Also, at the end of the series, I use the theme to help prevent bad graphs, plus there's a punchline that's truly absurd. Stay tuned.

Fifty Ways To Avoid Tables (with thanks to Paul Simon and his 1975 song): do you have numbers that you need to convey? Worried that readers hate tables? Fear not, for: “The problem is all inside your head, the answer is easy if you take it logically, I’d like to help you in your struggle to be free. There must be fifty ways to… avoid tables” (c'mon everybody, sing along): “Be a prat, Nat... do a Curved Track, Jack (Fig 5). Show a Long and Winding Road, Jodie. (Fig 6). Bewilder with a Hill, Jill (Fig 7). No need to eschew a Spike, Mike (Fig 8).

And set yourself free.”

Over the next few months, you'll see more of these weird ways to avoid tables. And they all really existed in published reports - they're not illustrative ones created by me.

'Til then


Clarity and Impact Ltd | +44 20 8840 4507 | jon@jmoon.co.uk | www.jmoon.co.uk

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