Dashboards, part 5: making it sharp... and Paul Simon (yet more)

This is the fifth in a series of email updates on dashboards. The first reviewed a typical dashboard (it was a page of graphs) and explained why it didn't work. We then took the graphs’ underlying data - how could we convey it more clearly? Today we continue working on it (and spoiler alert - it gets detailed).

Last month, we ended up with Figure 1 (and to save space in this email, I’ve shown just the three most recent months):

But we’ve a problem: column headings run continuously into each other. The word Customers is closer to the word Fights (to which it doesn’t relate) than it is to Drunken Acts (to which it does relate). Which sends wrong signals to readers.

We need gaps between columns – so see Figure 2 (and below, you see why there are red letters along the bottom row).

The gaps help. Words no longer confusingly run into each other. Readers more quickly grasp structure and acclimatise to the table.

But… the units of measurement are a bit ragged. A bit inconsistent. That’s because they are inconsistent. In columns A to C, units of measurement are left-aligned, but in D and E, they’re centred - and in F and G, they’re right-aligned. I did this so we could see which works best… and the answer is (cue drum roll): none of them do.

Left-aligned is, well, too far to the left (A to C). Centre-aligned half works – it’s not bad for column D, but doesn’t work for column E; Customers is a long-ish word, so Nos sits too far to the left of the numbers it sits atop. And right-aligned doesn’t work, the ‘s’ of Nos pokes out slightly to the right (F and G).

So study Figure 3 (and to save space, I don’t show the ‘Target’ row at the bottom).

Now, units are measurement are right-aligned… but sometimes with spaces added afterwards (e.g. Nos <space><space>). The units sit where I want them to sit, not where Excel’s defaults put them. I did that by occasionally adding spaces. Sometimes one space. Sometimes two. Or even three. Whatever works best. It’s pure trial and error.

I also did one other small tweak. I reformatted the Customers numbers. They’re still right-aligned (which is good, it helps us do mental arithmetic), but they’re shunted a bit more into the centre of the cell. Study the ‘1’ of the number '10' in that column – previously it lined up with the ‘e’ of Customers, but now lines up with the ‘o’ of Customers. Which looks better - scan the table's columns from left to right... columns of numbers are now a bit more evenly spaced.

We’re getting there, but there’s one last run round the block. That’s for next month. Time for the fun stuff - and again it’s on the Fifty Ways pastiche we saw last month. Do quickly read it because in two months, I show how to use the theme to help prevent bad graphs. There’s also an absurd punchline to them. Stay tuned.

Fifty Ways To Avoid Tables: got numbers to convey, but fear that readers hate tables? Fear not, there must be fifty ways to avoid tables (with thanks to Paul Simon's 1975 song) – previous emails showed eight ways; here’s four more (c'mon everybody, sing along):

“Shock with weird Constructs, Chuck. Draw a rainbow, Joe (Fig 4). Confuse with Unordered Icons in a Box, Knox (Fig 5). Do a Circular Trapezoid, Floyd (Fig 6), Don’t avoid a pyramid, Sid (Fig 7).... and set yourself free.”

‘Til next month.


P.S. Is this dashboard-redo getting a bit obsessive? No. As I've said before, with dashboards the devil is in the detail. Also, most dashboards are bad. Make yours great, and you’ll shine. A great dashboard is the gift that keeps giving.

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

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