Dashboards, part 7: how to stop others doing bad charts

This recent email series on dashboards featured a pastiche of Paul Simon's song Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover – several times, I redid its lyrics as Fifty Ways To Avoid Tables. Today we see how that pastiche can help you stop others doing bad charts. And a warning - this email is long, but a lot of it is a 'P.P.S.' that shows again all the Paul Simon stuff... and more.

On with today’s topic. In  this email series, you've seen many crazy ways people avoid tables - and there's an absurd punchline to them: they’re all from one report, done in 2018 by a firm of actuaries. It's weird, actuaries love tables - the two words 'actuarial' and 'tables' go together - like the words 'Lennon' and 'McCartney' - yet their report eschewed tables!? 

Now, don't wrongly think that crazy ways were a '2018' thing which no longer exist. No. They're still rampant, and that's because it's tough to argue against them. People that create crazy ways – let’s call them 'Funksters' – are often designers, so surely they know best about, well, design. Also, to justify their nonsense, they flood us with tired cliches. “A picture paints 1,000 words.” “Visuals have impact” (ironically, they don't convey this with a visual...). And false equivalences too: “A great visual is better than 100 bad tables”.

Sometimes, Funksters justify their abominations with 'evidence'. "Bosses", they say, "told me they prefer my visuals". Probably true... but only because bosses had previously been sent achingly bad tables. Conclusion: bosses prefer bad visuals to bad tables... which doesn't exactly progress the thinking. (Aside: when someone says: "My boss prefers graphs", demand to see what the boss had been sent previously... bet it was terrible tables.)   

The rest of this email fights back against Funksters - and I've heard that if you can name a problem, you’re half way to solving it. Well, my emails' ‘Paul Simon’ tomfoolery gave names to these weird constructs (‘Constructs’).

So when Funksters create, say, Figure 1 for your report, say to them: “Hmm, interesting - you’ve done Cut Circles… but I dunno – why not Circular Trapezoids instead?” (Figure 2).

Maybe even invent names for ones that don’t even exist (“Or maybe do Nonagons In Curtains? Or Overlapping Irregular Pentagons?"). This sends a message to Funksters: that you know more about Constructs than they do... which might cause them to retreat.

To up the ante, maybe propose a new daft Construct. If you’ve data for, say, complaints for year to date (Figure 3), suggest that Funksters create Figure 4.

I call it Bridge Over Troubled Water. It’s a proper plot inasmuch as the length of each colour indicates the value the colour represents (and yes, I really did compute the arc of a sine, and added up the arches on the bridge, etc).

Or suggest Figure 5: Leaves That Are Green (it's a 1965 Simon and Garfunkel single). Ok, leaf size doesn’t relate to its numbers, but so be it... that's what Funksters do (study Cut Circles above, for instance).

Of course, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Leaves That Are Green are both nuts. Funksters would mock them. “What the ?!@#!!”, they’d say, “the imagery adds nothing - readers must scan the Figure to read the numbers.”.

Which is exactly the point you make about their Constructs. After all, study Quads (Figure 6 – I’ve shown just a bit of it to save space).

Maybe Funksters propose something more… conventional. Such as Hills (Figure 7). And yes, it clearly shows which Hill is biggest. Compare that to Bridge Over Troubled Water (and to many other Constructs): it’s hard to see which is biggest.

So if Funksters propose Hills, what to do then? Answer: suggest a 'table' (Figure 3 above) - and add: "People love tables - think sports league tables". And then make it real for them: ask the Funkster to imagine that their boss is telling them their pay increase for the year, and the boss wishes to give context by conveying, say, the Funkster’s last four years’ salaries. Would they like to see the data conveyed as, say, Hills? Of course not. They’d think: “Hills?! Nah… just show me a table!”.

Time to get on my high horse: for many reasons, crazy Constructs are bad. They're time-consuming and costly to create. They confuse, not clarify. They insult and patronise readers. They assume we’re bored or disinterested or stupid - or all three. They show how little thought their peddlers give to the subject in which they profess to have an expertise: conveying information. They don’t have expertise. Rather, Constructs are buffoonery and modern-day snake oil.

It’s time to call a halt and fight back. If you've the courage, expose Funksters' nonsense in meetings in front of others. How? See the tips above. After a couple of humiliations, Funksters might back off and grow up.  

OK, I'm getting strident, so let's dismount my High Horse. (Maybe I should show an infographic of me dismounting a high horse...) 

No fun stuff this month. Hopefully, the Constructs gave you a laugh. And you've lots more in the P.P.S below.

'Til next month.


P.S. Above, I jokingly mentioned Overlapping Irregular Pentagons. Bizarrely, people often do them, they're called 'Spider Graphs'. And they're dreadful.

P.P.S. Here are the crazy ways from previous emails (Figures 1 to 17 below). Figures 18 to 29 are some more crazy ways, all from a 2021 report. Enjoy.

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 1). Show a Long and Winding Road, Jodie. (Fig 2). Bewilder with a Hill, Jill (Fig 3). No need to eschew a Spike, Mike (Fig 4)."

“Do something dumb, chum. Try Coloured Icons, Ron (Fig 5). Use Fading Arrow Heads, Ted (Fig 6). Resort to Blue Blocks, Doc (Fig 7) – or put two as a Cluster, Buster (Fig 8)."

“Draw a rainbow, Joe (Fig 9). Confuse with Unordered Icons in a Box, Knox (Fig 10). Do a Circular Trapezoid, Floyd (Fig 11), Don’t forget Marbles on a Pyramid, Sid (Fig 12)"

“Shock with weird Constructs, Chuck. Confound with Quads, Rod (Fig 13). Cut Circles in Two, Stu (Fig 14). Take it to eleven with a Volume Control, Coel (Fig 15). Mix it up with a Map, dear chap (Fig 16). Pin Lollies on a Screen, Jean (Fig 17)."

“Engage with Colourful Boxes on a Trolley, Dolly (Fig 18). Convey with a Hose Pipe Spray, Jay (Fig 19). Incite with Stacked Bars, Lars... or Dots on a Pole, Joel - with a Radiator Beneath, Keith (all Fig 20, red circle added by me). And don't eschew Icons Under and Over, Rover (Fig 21)."

"Inspire with a Coloured Box, Knox (Fig 22). Inform with Seat Plans for the Royal Albert Hall, Saul (Fig 23). Impress with Arrows, Icons, Lines and Columns... all in one place, Grace (Fig 24). Innovate with an Expanding Fan, Stan (Fig 25)."

"Dial it up with Columns in a Dial, Niall (Fig 26). For just five numbers... do Eight Circles, Merkel (Fig 27). Oh my darling - try Semi-Circles on a Line, Clementine (Fig 28). And last but not least, go for a Semi-Circular Amphitheatre, Beata (Fig 29."

"And set yourself free." 

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

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