Dashboards, part 6: conveying messages... and Paul Simon once more

This is the sixth in a series of email updates on dashboards. The first reviewed a typical dashboard – a page of graphs – and analysed why it was bad. The next then took the graphs’ underlying data and improved it bit by bit. Today, we see the finished product.

Last month, we ended up with Figure 1 (albeit unlike in the previous email, it shows all months' data).

Notice it greys down older numbers. This creates visual distinctions, plus makes the table look less daunting - the third email in the series talked about this. 

But there's more to do. You see, with dashboards, readers need help. What's going well? What's going badly? Which bits matter? So see Figure 2.

There are several changes that take us from Figure 1 to Figure 2:

I’ve numbered the columns: see top row – '1' to '7', in a small font and greyed down. And I’ve numbered the sections ('A' and 'B'). This helps conversation and commentary, e.g. “I’m worried about Fights - column 6”.

I've done a sort of RAG. It’s in section A (I told you that numbering the sections helps us navigate). For each set of data, there's a red 'cross' or an amber '1/2' or a green 'tick' (I tried an amber 'dash' - but it wasn't very visible - hence the '1/2'.) The legend - top left of Figure 2 - explains this coding. Of course, instead of, say, a red 'cross', I could do a red circle or square (it's what people do) - but red circles and squares don't work for colour-blind people. A red 'cross' does.

I've given comments. Yes, I reckon column 2 deserves a red 'cross'... but why? I could leave readers to work it out themselves, but that's cruel. So instead, I tell them. (Granted, this requires manual intervention, but if it helps improve conversations and shorten meetings, then that's worth striving for.)

I've created visual distinctions to these comments. E.g. comments for the red 'cross' are in bold, and comments for green 'ticks' are greyed down. It further helps guide readers to key points. (If you think it’s negative to focus on bad stuff and want instead to do the opposite, brace yourself for a dressing-down when bosses realise you down-play bad news.)

I’ve created defined terms, e.g. ‘DA’ = Drunken Acts – see the heading for columns 4 and 5. I want the commentary to be brief, and DA is shorter than Drunken Acts. If you don’t like such abbreviations, no worries - don’t abbreviate.

We’re there. Our dashboard creates visual distinctions. It guides readers to key bits. It explains why I think what I think.  

And it has repeatability (this email explains this). When bosses ask about Gun Confiscations this month, you say: “They're down from 74 to 65”. Compare that to the graphs we saw at the start of this series of emails – you’d diffidently say: “Well....March's blue column looks smaller than February's…”.

Now think back to the graph-filled dashboard we started with. When people realise it doesn't quite work, they hardly ever think of turning it into a table. Rather, they agonise over graph-choice (“maybe a spider graph... or a waterfall?").

Or they faff around with frippery and formats, as they desperately crawl over hot coals to make the graphs work ("If we put a star at the top to highlight a key bit, then add a second y-axis and some call-out boxes too - plus try different colours... no, more colours - then maybe that'll help...").

No. Such frippery makes bad graphs worse. Readers take even longer to acclimatise to them. 

But anyway, as I've said before, many of us don’t engage with graphs. We glance at them. And lots of graphs on a page suffer from diminishing marginal returns.

So instead, try decent tables - and add comments too. People love tables. Think of sports league tables – people devour them.

Time for the fun stuff - and again it’s on the Fifty Ways theme we saw in previous emails. Do quickly read it because next month, I show how to use the theme to help prevent bad charts such as the ones below. 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 song) – previously, you’ve seen twelve ways; here’s five more (come along everyone, sing along):

“Confound with Quads, Rod (Fig 3). Cut Circles in Two, Stu (Fig 4). Copy a Volume Control, Coel (Fig 5). Mix it up with a Map, dear chap (Fig 6). Pin Lollies On A Screen, Jean (Fig 7).

And set yourself free.”

'Til next month.


P.S. In Figure 2, maybe you think the comment "Staff DAs fairly stable over time" neither explains nor justifies an amber '1/2' rating. If you do... I'm fine with that. At least it means: (1) I made a comment; (2) you read it. So now we can chat about it. Which is progress. 

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

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