Better Charts for Business: When Business Doesn’t Care

business doesnt careMost managers don’t care about a better visualization of business data. As a reader puts it:

Short of locking management in a room with Tufte and Few, how do I sell management on the value of seeing things differently?

Instead of trying to sell, let’s see why the aren’t buying. Here are some reasons.

Good Charts Are For Middle-Management

Making sense of a large amount of data is a task for the middle management, while senior management only needs a couple of carefully chosen KPI.

I suspect that some middle managers secretly use good dashboards, dynamic charts, the works. If they are doing a good job, their reports for the senior management are filtering out all the less relevant data and now they can focus on what is important: making a good impression. That’s why middle managers use charts for illustration purposes only, and PowerPoint (low resolution, animation effects, 3D and textures) is the perfect tool.

This is also why top managers don’t really care about charts. They like to see some color in a report, but little knowledge (or none at all) derives from the charts. Each new 3D chart reinforces their perception that charts are pretty but fundamentally useless in the decision-making process.

This is a gross simplification, naturally. I just want to emphasize that:

  • impression management should be taken into account when discussing real-world business visualization;
  • upper managers need less (but more focused/filtered) data than middle managers;
  • upper management can hardly evaluate the role of charts because they don’t use them in their decision making processes.

I strongly believe that interaction is a critical feature when creating charts and dashboards, but top management needs answers, not tools to explore the data. When designing an executive dashboard you must know who will use it, and how. Middle managers will be please to know that they can select different competitors from a list, but top managers want you to tell them who the competition is. Corolary: know your users.

Show me the Numbers

A piece of advise: display a label like “12,893,239.873” on the top of a column in a column chart and your managers will sleep much better. To you, it may seem a useless precision. To them, it brings a priceless sense of security and “being in control”. Tip: try to find the optimal rounding digit that makes your manager look more relaxed (extra points is he/she starts to levitate).

Seriously, a chart is not a table, and it shouldn’t be treated as one (this is one of many misconceptions about charts). But you can display the exact value of some relevant data points, provided it doesn’t interfere with the patterns. If that’s not possible, add a table below the chart or, better yet, link the chart to the underlying table. With a little VBA you can use a “mouse over” event in PowerPoint to show/hide the table.

Iliterate Inertia

Let’s face it: most people are unaware of our little knowledge field of information visualization. They don’t learn about it in school, they have a bad addiction to the wrong role models (the media), they are exposed on a daily basis to ugly and stupid defaults (in Excel and PowerPoint) and corporate culture isn’t helpful. Neither inertia.

So, do you have a better answer? Please share it in the comments.

Photo credit: Serena TH

8 thoughts on “Better Charts for Business: When Business Doesn’t Care

  1. Another great post that addresses the “Real Business World vs Information Visualization” issue. Though I do concur with most of your arguments, especially the one about Iliterate Inertia, I still feel that “good charts” are & should be part of the business decision-making process for top management.

    Consider the traditional McKinsey “Waterfall Chart” that explains how to get from situation A to situation B and pointing out which elements you can leverage on. When built, it usually reflects a lot of the “good practices” of information vizualisation and it is used in the decision making processes.

    What is drastically missing, and in that respect I concur with the notion of illiterate Inertia, is the education of top management to good charts and its benefits to a business decision-making process.

    In a recent assignment, we had to show the result of a new commercial organization design and show what the new sales teams activities would be like. I deliberately used a “Strip Chart” to show for each sales team how much contact each sales rep would have. This “bar-coding” style graph was greatly appreciated by the CEO which, after considering the first 3 slides (each discussing one of the sales team) told us he had never encountered such a graph before but found it the most pertinent graphical approach for this sizing of sales team issue. But once “educated” to the reading of the graph, it greatly helped him in his decision-making process.

    We have a long way to go but I strongly advocate educating top managers to “better chart” based on real-world & real situations examples.

    Adding that as part of your regular “Business MBA” courses is also essential as these guys will be tomorrow’s company managers. That would be my next personal crusade in France.

  2. It depends on the goal.

    If the goal is to communicate a finding to a senior audience, don’t dally – tell them damned finding, what happened, why it happened, and what to do next. If anybody questions the analyses, the charts, tables, and regressions can be found in the appendix. And trust me: senior people will look at appendices if you’re telling them something they don’t already know or suspect.

    If the goal is to drone on for 55 minutes about pageviews this and unique visitors that and conversion this, AND ON AND ON AND ON – all without real why’s or hypothesis or actions or a decision point – to a senior audience: you can kill them with charts. Go ahead. Drown them.

    You’re right about precision delivering a false sense of comfort. You’re bang on.

    There are good infometrics best practices. Developing a dashboard is in many ways more complex than building a website. We do have design patterns in infometrics, however, not all design patterns work in all cultures.

    If you’re going to present a chart – follow the best practices. Start the axes at 0. Use bars for nominal and ordinal data, lines for interval. Label the axes. Label the chart.

    Many insights can be communicated very well with 2 well selected series on a chart.

  3. @Bernard: Great comment, thanks. Obviously we have to have good data management (including data analysis and visualization) at all levels, and I don’t really believe in a middle management conspiracy to use good tools for their own analysis and eye-catching charts for reporting (but I do think that too many people have this misguided notion that you are able to impress with some canned effects).

    That’s my experience too… When they are able to make comparisons people become aware of how relevant charts can be if used as a decision-supporting tool.

    “my next personal crusade in France” and you are doing a great job, but more on that later…

  4. Just before I read this excellent post, I looked at a Powerpoint presentation by Dave Prior, published on Gantthead.com. The presentation adresses how to use a new approach to software development (Scrum) in an organisation that will keep the traditional management style. The challenge is to present management with the information they need, even if the new development approach does not support the traditional reporting KPIs. The solution given in this presentation was a simple one. I had to bite my tongue to keep from crying out loud in our open plan office. The solution was:

    Management likes pie.

    Followed by hideous 3D pie charts that looked like the one you’re showing in the image of this post. The only positive was that they (mostly) did not present more than 4 data points in each pie… but still!

    Sources: http://www.gantthead.com/video.cfm?ID=249216
    presentation at http://www.gantthead.com/presentations/Scrum-in-the-Waterfall.html but requires subscription.

  5. I loved your analysis, but I think you give middle management too much credit. The reason they don’t use fully interactive (or the Zen presentation approach) PowerPoint presentations is because they don’t know how. I am a business/data analyst and in my office it is bullet point hell, and it is because they don’t know any better and aren’t willing to sit down with a book on presenting, or go to a toastmasters class.

    Also, I think this is one of the main reasons many business analyst still use terrible 3D charts and the like in their dashboards. They will spend much time building a model, but view the chart as almost an afterthought. If they use the more gaudy charts in their Xcelcius dashboards, it is most likely because a middle manager asked them to so that they can impress upper management.

    Middle management doesn’t mind using stripped down charts because things move so fast that they only care about the numbers (ie. their jobs), and it is not because they love the ideas of Tufte.

    I just have come to the conclusion that it is a rare employee that actively seeks out information (on their own) and tries to really master their subject area. Just this week I was talking with one our our IT guys and he was amazed that I knew SQL. When I told him I was now learning the Python programming language, he had no idea what I was talking about. Our IT guy didn’t know what Python was!!! Most people begrudginly come to work, take coffee breaks, and then go home to watch American Idol.

    Sincerely,

    Jaded

  6. I’m at work and went to the Illustration Purposes link, being presented with a semi naked girl. Would you please remove that sort of content from your site so we can actually read it in a work environment? Thankyou.

  7. Peter: you will not see “that sort of content” in this site, except for this post. It is not gratuitous, it has a point. I’m sorry if you feel it is NSFW, but I will not remove it. I’ll add a NSFW warning.

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