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