Insight from Agora Consultants

Are your reports hurting project success?

I read a very interesting piece from Harvard Business about blindly trusting reports. I still rememb [More]

Do emotions have a role to play in dashboard design?

My background is both in engineering and usability. Functional design is very important to me. I’ve been educated to build things so that they work well for people. With the Business Intelligence practice I lead, dashboards and reports are an area I get involved in. Most times people are very satisfied with the design. Occasionally though, some people will say “this works but I’d like some gauges, dials and colors”. This happens particularly when the dashboard is for their boss and peers, and not individual use. I found this frustrating because it went contrary to many of the usability design principles I learned and practice. What is going on? I found the answer from the legendary usability expert Donald Norman who struggled with the same issue. I read his book The Design of Everyday Things about 15 years ago. In this book he describes what makes a product usable. Although the book was extremely well received it and is a must read for people in the design industry, it did have it’s critics who would comment, “If we were to follow Norman’s prescription, our designs would all be usable – but they would also be ugly.” He addressed this issue in the subsequent book, Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. He answers the question, “Can beauty and brains, pleasure and usability, go hand in hand?”. And as indicated by the title of chapter 1, “Attractive things work better”, he comes to the conclusion the answer is yes. He does this though discussing three levels of design: Visceral design concerns itself with appearances. The visceral level is the simplest and most primitive part of the brain. It is based on sensory information and is incapable of reasoning. Since it is based on sensory information, visceral design affects people the same around the world and across ages in a similar fashion way. Bright colours and loud noises induce stimulation, soft colours and soothing sounds help us relax. Behavioural design has to do with the pleasure and effective of use of a product. This is where usability comes in. At the behavioural level, we are happy if the product does what it is supposed to and does it well. If we only focus only behavioural design, people may find the product boring or ugly. Reflective design considers the rationalization and intellectualization if a product. This is the highest level of feeling about a product. This level of design has the largest diversity of opinion about a product due to culture, experience, and education. People’s opinion at this level is formed over long term use of the product. At this level, people take pride in the use of the product. Product support such as customer interaction and service matter at this level. Dashboards and reports are a result of a design process. Emotion does have a role to play in design. Do how do we work emotion into dashboard design? Well, that’s the topic for the next blog post.

Is your organization inefficient with your project information?

From inception through to deployment how efficient is your organization with its information about projects? As a project goes through its lifecycle a multitude of information is collected, stored and reported on. Often this grows organically as different groups involved in a project collect and store different information. The diagram below shows this process both for an efficient and an inefficient organization.   Typically what happens in an organization is different groups are responsible for the different steps along the project lifecycle. They develop or find their own tools to fit their own specific needs. This leads to islands of information all about the same topic – projects. Problems that occur in this situation include: The same type of information stored in multiple places leads to data quality issues. An update in one place isn’t necessarily reflected in another. Information stored in different places leads to different reports being generated.  This leads to confusion as the format and interpretation of reports can be different. There is an exposure to institutional knowledge risk. Localized point solutions are often “home-grown” leading to a difficultly in supporting them if key resources leave. Data needs to be re-entered into different systems along the way. It is difficult to have traceability of a project through the lifecycle. A centralized platform address these problems and introduce additional benefits: Provides a common user experience. An organization grows with the platform. As features are added with upgrades the entire organization gets a lift. Reduces the support requirements. Agora has assisted organizations with moving from data islands to a common platform. Drop me a line if your are interested in hearing about options for your organization.

Be presentable to your users

Business Intelligence solutions can loosely be divided into two components: getting the data right (by cleaning it and storing in a Data Mart) and presenting the data to the user (through dashboards and reports). Preparing the data requires lots of time and effort and time to ensure the data is clean, conformed and correct. You can only capitalize on this investment if you present the data in a form that is easy to understand and helps support decision making processes. Here are five tips for displaying data to users. Be aware of the form factor. Like it or not many people still like to print. If you know this ahead of time you can design your report or dashboard to accommodate printing. Conversely, perhaps the user will be looking at it on a laptop. Don’t be caught developing it on a large screen only to have it truncated on an Executive’s smaller laptop screen. Be consistent. A dynamic report that has different layouts depending on the data will only confuse people. The report should have the information located in the same position every time it is viewed. Imagine if your car dashboard changed location of the gauges each day of the week! Keep it simple. Don’t clutter a report with noise such as logos and decoration unless they are conveying information. A good use of decoration is to set the context of which business unit or company the report is for. A poor use is extraneous lines and shadows that don’t introduce any new meaning. Does a 3-D bar chart convey any more information than a 2-D? If not – remove the extra graphics in a 3-D chart and stick with a 2-D. Minimize the amount of thinking for the user. Again consider a car dashboard analogy. A driver needs to be able to quickly glance at the dashboard and understand what is going on so decisions can be made. Visual indicators in a report reduces the amount of interpretation that is required. For instance, if red-yellow-green indicators are displayed users can quickly direct their attention to those areas that are immediate issues. Allow a natural transition to another level of detail. Once users realizes something needs attention they should be able to drill into the detail to understand the underlying cause. Reports should be naturally linked so it is clear how a summary statistic on one report is related to detailed items on another. Reports are the basis of people making decisions. Good report design reduces the possibility of mis-interpretation, communicates issues quickly and permits users to view data at the level they need.