I have been having a discussion with Andreas Schneider in the comments section of my recent Xcelsius, Zen and Nirvana blog post, but I think the topic we’ve been discussing “effective visual design” is important enough that this discussion warrants a post of its own.
At issue is Andreas’s comment that the “most important task” in building a dashboard is “effective visual design”. The reason that I question this is that in some quarters “effective visual design” becomes an almost fanatical pursuit, which IMO goes beyond its value and in some cases becomes counterproductive. My comment back to Andreas was:
“I am not sure why you feel ‘effective visual design’ is so important, I agree that it is important to make sure that visual design does not lead to incorrect interpretation of the data, but past that the difference it makes feels marginal. Happy to be proved wrong if you have good examples to the contrary.”
Before anyone starts yelling at me, I want to be clear:
- I absolutely think that the visual design of a dashboard can make a difference
- We need to be sure that visual design never leads to incorrect interpretations of the data
- Research and thinking in this area, over the years, has led to many improvements in the way dashboards and visualizations are delivered
- Over-focus on visual design marginalizes other, potentially more important aspects of a dashboard
- Particularly, supposedly “unbreakable” rules of visual design need to be viewed in the context of the purpose of specific dashboards
- The speed at which people pick numbers out of a dashboard seems to me to be of fairly low importance and so any visual design with this sole purpose is unlikely to be that valuable
In his response to my question, Andreas mentions a number of interesting things, but probably most interesting was:
“Apple was/is so successful, because of the thoughtful design down to the last screw, down to the last mouse-click”
I would strongly argue that Apple’s design is more about engagement than efficiency. I know they do lots of usability testing and their products are known for ease of use, but from a consumer perspective it seems to me that their success depends more on the fact that their products are beautiful (dare I say “sexy”) than that they are efficient. I am sure there is a more efficient layout of the iOS home screen (perhaps with muted colours) but I doubt it would be more engaging.
Another obvious example is the fact that reflective glare on iOS app icons is mandatory. In one of his white papers, Stephen Few says “When we encounter glare in the real world, we ﬁnd it annoying, so what possible purpose could it serve on a computer display?” From an efficiency perspective, he is absolutely right, but that rather overlooks the engagement perspective.
One of the key issues which has faced BI for years is user adoption; dashboards are no different. I have no idea why people like glare on dashboard objects, it makes no sense (even though I like it myself), but the fact is they do, it draws them in, it engages, it drives adoption; and, if you ignore that effect then you immediately tie one hand behind your back in terms of making your dashboard project a success.
The lesson we in the dashboard world can learn from this is summarized in the trivial formula:
Total value of a dashboard = number of views x average value per view.
Efficient design can drive the second half of this equation (i.e. average value per view) but we need to understand that it can come at a cost to the first half (number of views).
We see this effect every day when we browse the Web. If we come across a site which looks bad then we tend to leave before even before we try it. It could be the easiest site in the world to use, but it may never get a chance because of its initial appearance.
This is one of the reasons I asked Andreas for examples of the real business difference he has seen effective design make. If we have real examples we can start to weigh up their value against the value of doing potentially less efficient things which might drive increased usage of dashboards.
Unfortunately, Andreas did not offer any specific examples, but he did include a list of what he considers to be good and bad design:
“3d charts or even worse, stacked 3d pie charts, bright colors for almost everything, drawing boxes around charts to separate data visually, or segregating data by splitting data up across multiple screens (thereby hindering pattern search, etc.) are all examples of poor visual design. Gauges, which use lots of real estate, but do not provide much information are another example of poor design choice.
Good design choices: use line charts for time series as a rule of thumb, do color encode your KPIs (not blue for Revenue in one chart and then yellow for Revenue in another slide for the same KPI e.g.), create context (rich information), allow for comparisons.”
To be fair, in general these (particularly the good design choices) seem sensible, however, I do think that we should be cautious labelling bright colours, gauges and multiple screens as poor, without any further context or thought about the purpose of a specific dashboard.
One thing which always strikes me as odd in these discussions about efficient design is the focus on speed of interpretation, and Andreas raises this again when he says effienct visual deisng is good because:
“Because it allows us to see and understand the presented data quickly”
Most dashboards I have seen (however inefficiently designed) take a few seconds at most to assimilate; is cutting this from a few seconds to a fraction of a second really going to make that much difference? Again, I would love to hear of real-world examples where this matters.
Finally there is a point on which Andreas and I absolutely agree. He talks about dashboards leading:
“to understanding, which leads to action”
The important word here is action. In the words of the Gartner Analyst Andreas Bitterer “BI is not there to let you know, it is there to let you act”. However, I would argue that understanding the business context of a dashboard and how it will be used is many, many times more important in this regard than any visual design.