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Why I am (and remain) in love with the bar chart
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Why I am (and remain) in love with the bar chart

For enthusiasts like myself, digital dashboards can look very appealing. However, just like with a car dashboard, they are of no use if you don’t know how fast you’re going. An ode to effective visualization.

What the newest and trendiest business intelligence tools promise sounds too good to be true. They claim to be able to do everything you want. With that software, you can effortlessly create a fantastic dashboard that precisely shows how your sales or productivity are doing. They want us to believe that anyone can do it. Creating a good dashboard is not a piece of cake. And “5 minutes to WOW” as the PowerBI tool, for example, promises, is not entirely realistic. Just like with all other good things in life, quality takes time.

What the newest and trendiest business intelligence tools promise sounds too good to be true. They can do everything you want, they say.

Peter Geelen

Dazzling vs. effective

The key lies in the concept of a “well-designed dashboard”. By that, I am referring to an effective dashboard instead of a dazzling one. A dazzling dashboard with the newest and most impressive visualizations may initially create a “wow effect”. But shortly after, a “huh?” effect may follow.

The crucial point is that the users of the dashboard can see how things are going. They need to know how their organization is performing and be able to intervene promptly if necessary. Only when you achieve that, have you created a well-designed dashboard. It is not about the means but the goal you want to achieve with it. 

Number-crunchers and visualization enthusiasts

To create an effective dashboard, you must consider the differences among users. No one looks at a visualization in the same way. You have true number-crunchers who prefer not to see any graphs but have a preference for numbers. There are also true visualization enthusiasts who prefer colorful maps, waterfall charts, or scatter plots. And let’s not forget about people who find numbers and graphs challenging to read. They often need some time to absorb the information. There are even top managers who belong to this group. That doesn’t make them lesser managers.

These three types of users can be found in every organization, spread across all levels. Effective dashboards distinguish themselves by appealing not only to number-crunchers or visualization enthusiasts but to all employees. This includes the group that finds them challenging to “read”.

Discussion at the dashboard

A second characteristic of effective dashboards is that they leave little room for discussions about the numbers themselves. The discussion should not revolve around questions like: What about the data’s reliability? Or: Is it true that the delivery reliability (for the experts: OTIF) has decreased?

You want the discussion to focus on the organization and its improvement “around the dashboard”. What do those numbers say about our performance, and what actions should we take? To create an effective dashboard, you need to know what conversations are happening within an organization and what kind of insights different people need from the numbers.

Treemap versus bar chart

To give you an impression of what I find effective or not, I have created two fictional visualizations using the PowerBI tool. They represent the same information, sales per country, in different ways.

The visualization on the left is a treemap, while the one on the right is a bar chart. The bar chart is my personal preference. It provides clear order and makes it easy to compare countries. You only need to look once to understand the visualization or interpret the data. For example, you can see that Poland has more sales than Germany, which is hardly noticeable in the treemap on the left.

Map

Let me be clear: I’m not against beautiful visualizations. Besides the bar chart, you could use a map, as shown in the following visualizations.

In the visualization on the left, you can see in which countries your company generates revenue and how these revenues compare to each other (more revenue in Spain and Italy compared to Norway). If you want more detailed information, you can switch to the bar chart on the right. In the bar chart, you can also combine data, such as ‘revenue’ versus ‘revenue compared to budget’ or ‘revenue 2018’ versus ‘revenue 2017’.

Back to the overview

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