It is not difficult to present data in clear, accurate, and meaningful ways. The skills that are required to do this can be easily learned. They involve simple principles, most of which have been taught for many years. So why are most data displays so impoverished?
One reason is that we live in a time when people use their computers as a replacement for skills. If you rely on Excel or almost any other software tool that creates charts to do the work for you, then your data displays will fail miserably. Effective data visualization practices are only built into a few products that are available today. Most software vendors have decided that they can satisfy us with razzle dazzle—pie charts that spin and bars shaped like pyramids—and so far we haven’t discouraged them by refusing to buy their silly products.
We are stuck in a vicious cycle of data impoverishment. Vendors show us bad examples of data visualization and we emulate them in our work. When vendors then look at what their customers are doing, they see examples that lead them to give us more of the same. Only a few vendors care enough for their customers to avoid the silly stuff that undermines our efforts.
This morning, I was faced with a fresh reminder of the current state of data impoverishment. A reader invited me to visit Microstrategy’s website to see the finalists of its customer dashboard competition. What I found was depressing. I couldn’t find a single example of a dashboard that could be used to monitor information effectively. At best they could be used to look up a few facts when what’s actually needed is a rich set of comparisons. The problems that I found are too many to delineate, but all the dashboards suffer from a common flaw: they say too little and what they do say they say poorly.
To give you a sense of what I found, here are three of the winning entries:
The U.S. Postal Service is currently struggling to adapt to changes in the way that people communicate. If they find this dashboard helpful, it’s no wonder they’re struggling.
This entire dashboard displays four measures, and none in a manner that’s particularly useful. The slight exception is that you can choose one of the four measures, such as Occupancy, which is currently selected above, to view a time-series display. Unfortunately, this combination bar and line graph performs poorly compared to a simple line graph with three lines.
Poor Eli Kiwanuka. It appears that he was photographed in a police lineup. This “Executive Dashboard Summary – Sales” displays the performance of one person only. How is this a summary of sales performance? Rather than a dashboard for monitoring performance, this provides a means to look up a few facts about individual sales people, one at a time, and requires that you wade through a series of poorly-designed, eye-assaulting graphs to painfully piece together a picture of one person’s performance.
I don’t blame Microstrategy’s customers. They’re working within the constraints of the tool and emulating impoverished examples, which is probably all they’ve ever seen. I mostly blame the folks at Microstrategy, who should know better. This competition gave the folks at Microstrategy a perfect opportunity to critique the designs that were submitted and show their customers how much better these dashboards could work if designed more effectively, assuming their software makes this possible. Did they miss this opportunity because they don’t know any better themselves?
Impoverished displays of data are what you get when vendors care a lot about sales but little about the real needs of their customers.