Dashboards, part 2: removing distractions

This is the second in a series of email updates on dashboards. The first reviewed a typical dashboard – a page of graphs – and explained why it was bad.

But what to do instead of graphs? Well, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Figure 1 shows the graphs’ underlying data in a table (and to save space in this email, I show just the most recent months’ data). Notice how it looks like a typical Excel template, with blue shading and white fonts.

And it’s dreadful. No wonder people think they don’t like tables – Excel gives tables a bad name. Yet people love tables, they pore over sports league tables. So let’s make it into a good table – and over the years, my emails have given tips, e.g. make compact; remove as many grids as possible, and the ones you keep, grey down a bit; avoid distracting typography, etc.

Result: see Figure 2 (and as before, it shows just the most recent data). Notice there are horizontal lines for the first five rows, and none thereafter – I explain why soon.

The table now eschews shading every row (light blue, dark blue, light blue, etc). But surely such shading helps us scan across rows in a big table without losing our place. No. Such shading is a huge visual distraction, it makes numbers tougher to read. After all, would you prefer this email if it had light blue, dark blue shading along every row of text?!

As for scanning across rows in a big table, there are two ways to help readers, neither of which require distracting shading:

Have a horizontal line every row. Make the line thin and grey - and don't have vertical lines. See the first five data rows in the above table.

Or: have an empty row every four or five rows. Not a 'full' empty row, but one that's a third - or half - the usual row-height. It breaks the table into groups of four or five as you run down the page. Result: readers don’t lose their place when reading across the page.

But the bottom half of Figure 2 doesn’t do this. Rather, gaps arise when there’s a new topic (Drunken Acts, then Fights, etc). Which works if there are such groupings within the rows. Here, there are, so it’s what I’ve done.

(Figure 2 shows both ways - horizontal lines and gaps every few rows. It's merely to illustrate. Don’t do both in the same table, of course.)

Notice four other small changes from Figure 1 to Figure 2. (1) It’s Nov 21, not Nov-21… why the dash? (2) ‘0’ is now ‘-‘, it’s less intrusive (maybe explain this convention to readers if there’s a risk they'll be confused by a ‘-‘). (3) I’ve greyed down column headings and put them in a smaller font. They’re de-emphasised. The key bit of a table isn't the column headings, it’s the numbers. So, given this, it’s weird that many tables have column headings that are funky, colourful... and visually intrusive.

(4) I don’t let borders bump up to content, it looks ugly and hinders readability (see Figure 3). Content needs room to breathe. (If interested in ways to prevent borders bumping up to content, email me; I might cover it in a future email.)

So far, so… average, for we’ve more to do.

To be continued next month.

Fun stuff: the Rugby World Cup is in full swing, and when games are being screened, the UK TV channel amuses us with bad graphs. In the corner of the screen, we periodically see Figure 4, albeit it’s not usually on Fights Started.

The graph uses the teams’ shirt colours to guide us – here, the team in dark blue has started 15 fights, whereas the team in light blue started 14. The graph comes with a tagline: “Powered by CapGemini” – so we know who to thank blame for it.

I’ve three problems with the graph. Firstly, do we need a graph to help us grasp that ‘15’ is bigger than ‘14’? If we do, I guess we must really struggle when commentators tell us the score is, say, “32-8” (“32? 8? Which is bigger?!?”).

Secondly, if we need columns, don’t put them end to end; rather, put them side by side – it’s easier to compare. Thirdly - and here’s the fun bit – there’s no border round the columns, so when a team plays in white, you see Figure 5 (below).

A non-existent column to show ‘14’. Comic genius. 

Til next month.


P.S. Late update: during a recent rugby match, the graph denoted the team in white with a light grey column. The TV channel had seemingly realised the stupidity of a white borderless column on a white background.

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

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