The Global BusinessObjects Network Has Pie On Its Face

This blog entry was written by Bryan Pierce of Perceptual Edge.

Here at Perceptual Edge, we like to show real-world examples of poor graph design to teach people what not to do, because knowing what to avoid and why it doesn’t work is an important step in the learning process. We often receive emails from people who follow this blog or have read Stephen’s books or articles who want to share examples that they’ve come across. The pie chart below is one such example:

This graph was produced by the Global BusinessObjects Network to promote the upcoming 2009 SAP BusinessObjects User Conference. It’s supposed to show what BusinessObjects products the attendees of last year’s conference used. Regular readers of Stephen’s work know that he dislikes pie charts because they don’t work as effectively as alternatives like bar graphs, so I won’t revisit the general problems with pie charts. (If you’re interested in more information about pie charts, Stephen wrote a full review detailing their significant problems and single, rarely-needed strength.) Unfortunately, the design of this graph is quite terrible, even by pie chart standards.

This graph is dysfunctional for two major reasons. First, only the large slices have been directly labeled. All of the small slices are labeled using a legend, but there are so many slices that it’s impossible to associate the colors in the legend with the slices in the pie because so many of the colors are so similar. Sure, people can just read the values from the legend and ignore the pie, but how is that better than a simple table?

The second major problem with this graph is this: Pie charts are designed to display part-to-whole data, with each slice representing one discrete part of the whole and all of the slices adding up to 100%. For instance, you could show the breakdown of sales by region for a company. In the graph above, however, the slices add up to significantly more than 100% because the categories aren’t mutually exclusive. For instance, 67% of attendees use BusinessObjects Web Intelligence, but many of those people use other BusinessObjects software, too, so they’re being counted several times. The end result is that the blue slice that represents BusinessObjects Web Intelligence has a value of 67%, but it only takes up about 15% of the space in the pie. The visual picture conveyed by the pie chart misrepresents the data.

Both of these problems could have been solved by using a horizontal bar graph. With a horizontal bar graph, all of the bars could be the same color and there would be no problem labeling all of the slices directly, which would address the first problem, and because bar graphs are more versatile than pie charts and can be used for more than just part-to-whole relationships, it wouldn’t be confusing when the bars added up to more than 100%, which solves the second problem.

At Perceptual Edge, we’ve seen plenty of graphs like this, and worse. But it always irks us when we see examples like this coming out of the Business Intelligence industry, an industry that should know better. In this case, the Global Business Objects Network puts on a large conference with dozens of educational courses on BI related subjects, including analytics and dashboards. How do they expect people to trust them with the sophisticated visualization training, when their simple graphs are so dysfunctional?

-Bryan

7 Comments on “The Global BusinessObjects Network Has Pie On Its Face”


By jeff weir. July 9th, 2009 at 3:48 pm

Bryan: I’m sure you’d love the ‘Chartbusters’ logo that Chandoo is using for his Chartbusters series over at the pointy haired dilbert blog at http://chandoo.org/wp/2009/06/19/bad-asset-allocation-chart/

By Andy Holaday. July 9th, 2009 at 6:52 pm

How sadly ironic. I have been spreading the rumor at work (we are a Business Objects shop) that BO is not a business “intelligence” tool. It is a presentation tool, overly simplistic in capability and overly complicated in execution. It lacks functionality and an efficient UI, and is overpriced. Devout posters on the unofficial BO forum (”BOB”) will tell that BO is not an ETL tool. Yet ETL is the only thing I have found it useful for, and my patience with that wanes with every passing month-end.

I hope I am not premature in saying that BI software vendors have forsaken their mission and vision, substituting not-so-clever visualizations for truly functional analytical tools.

In the end, I believe it takes a good analyst to do analysis, and “BI software” is a ruse. Does anyone have a counterexample?

By N Barrett. July 10th, 2009 at 4:28 am

“How do they expect people to trust them with the sophisticated visualization training, when their simple graphs are so dysfunctional?”

Because a significant majority of the people recommending the software, purchasing the software and using the software have never, and will never, use it for any kind of meaningful analysis. In my line of work (operational research) I come across so many people who are deeply uncomfortable with numbers — they’re too abstract and too hard to think about. For them, the only thing worse than numbers is spending time talking about them.

But it’s not just the people with the purse strings who will buy something because its a) pretty, b) expensive and c) they’ve heard of it.

How many ‘analysts’ out there consider their job to be rechunking numbers up in different ways to avoid finding out what they’re telling them? Interpreting information is a skill that is sadly avoided or missing in many organisations.

Thinking about how information is designed forces people to consider what it is they need to say — this is hard, and people avoid it.

Sigh ;-)

By Tim Wilson. July 10th, 2009 at 6:17 am

This is so horrid that I wonder if it was actually someone’s idea of a joke. It’s a cascading hierarchy of awfulness, which almost makes it challenging to critique! Do you start with the fact that pie charts are generally bad, which is something that can at least be reasonably argued about…or do you go to, “If you’re going to use a pie chart, here are some general best practices?” Well…no. I’d say the “second major problem” trumps all — a pie chart where the sum of the parts is greater than 100% because of the nature of the data being presented is an inexcusable and unarguable offense.

To Andy’s point, though, I wouldn’t use the chart as evidence in any way in the indictment of the entire BO platform! This chart could have been built with any tool — from an enterprise BI platform all the way to Excel 97! The blame here falls squarely on the chart producer.

By Madan. July 15th, 2009 at 12:49 pm

I recently discovered these pie charts, and though I too am a pie hater, have to agree that these are effectively used:

http://www.visualeconomics.com/the-social-security-situation/

(scroll about 2/3 of the way down)

By Dallas Marks. July 17th, 2009 at 7:18 am

Maybe somebody should start a Dashboard Wrecks blog, similar to the wildly popular Cake Wrecks blog, http://cakewrecks.blogspot.com/.

By angkasuwan. July 24th, 2009 at 12:07 pm

surprised that chart has even been used