Simple guidelines for more efficient report & dashboard design

It is already for more than three years that I’m engaged with the topic of business information design. It was during a regular Crystal Reports project. We were about to finalize the IT concept phase and the project was on track. Crystal Reports was already selected as the tool to go forward with. When suddenly something happened: The sponsor of the project, the company’s CFO, asked us if we can implement what he called a “Hichert chart”. I found that Hichert is a German business information design specialist and at first sight he had some weird ideas regarding chart design. So weird we couldn’t really implment them with Crystal Reports and – long story short – we couldn’t finish the project as the CFO’s requirement regarding Hichert charts was too strong. Not even other tools within the BusinessObjects portfolio were able to fullfil it. So the customer finally chose an Excel based solution…

Of course I was annoyed but at as well curious. How powerful this Hichert stuff must be in order to turn a project upside down? This was the start of my journey into business information design. According to Wikipedia this field is about the following:

“Information design is the practice of presenting information in a way that fosters efficient and effective understanding of it. The term has come to be used specifically for graphic design for displaying information effectively, rather than just attractively or for artistic expression.” (Source)

In this and future blog posts I’d like to illustrate how you can achieve this more efficient understanding of data and information in the context of Business Intelligence.

There is already a lot of helpful content available, let me name just a few sources I use in my daily work:

For this article I’d like to introduce the SUCCESS model of Hichert. SUCCESS is an acronym for the following verbs:

Say – Unify – Condense – Check – Enable – Simplify – Structure

Every verb corresponds to a collection or category of design guidelines. Most of these guidelines are commonly accepted best-practices – and you find them as recommendations not only with Hichert but with many of the above people. The only difference with SUCCESS is, that the recommendations are put into about 120 concrete, numbered and illustrated  guidelines of “Dos & Don’ts” regarding information design. This very structured approach makes it very easy to get started with the topic. You can find everything summarized on the SUCCESS poster:

SUCCESS Poster

SUCCESS Poster (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

You can download your own copy here.

Let me briefly explain what each category is about:

Say: This is about having a message to tell or in general about meaningful content in your reports and dashboards. A good example is the following guideline:

Replace Traffic Lights

Replace Traffic Lights (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Another important, yet pretty easy to implment guideline tackles the matter of having a clear title concept which enables the reader to quicker grasp what he or she is looking at:

Title Concept (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Title Concept (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Unify: This category of guidelines is about the statement “what looks the same should mean the same” and the other way round. The following guideline shows suggestions how you might unify the look of tables and charts – for now the important part is not yet what the chart or table looks like but that charts and tables always follow the same design pattern.

Unify Tables & Charts (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Unify Tables & Charts (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Condense: Condense is about increasing the information density on a given report or dashboard page / screen. A few simple but powerful guidelines:

Use empty space (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Use empty space (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Use Small Multiples (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Use Small Multiples (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Check: This category is about ensuring quality. One topic for example is to choose an appropriate chart type and the usage of propre scales:

Choose appropriate chart type (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Choose appropriate chart type (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Don't cut axes (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Don’t cut axes (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Enable: The guidelines in the Enable category are not about information design itself but how to best introduce the guidelines of the other categories into an organization:

Present alternatives (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Present alternatives (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Create a Rollout Plan (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Create a Rollout Plan (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Simplify: This category brings together a lot of guidelines which are all about avoiding noise and other distracting elements in the report and dashboard design:

Avoid meaningless elements (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Avoid meaningless elements (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Avoid 3D charts (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Avoid 3D charts (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Omit Long Numbers (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Omit Long Numbers (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Structure: Similar to the Say category, Structure is more about the content itself than its visual representation. The guidelines here describe how to group data:

Exhaustive Structures (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Exhaustive Structures (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Mutually Exclusive Structures (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Mutually Exclusive Structures (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

 

Show Structures (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Show Structures (Source & Copyright: HICHERT+PARTNER)

Most of the above shown guidelines can be implemented straight away with most BI tools including SAP’s Web Intelligence and Crystal Reports. During my upcoming blog posts I’d like to look more closesly at several further aspects both from technical as well as conceptual perspective. This will also answer the question why we had troubles implementing “Hichert charts” in the customer project mentioned at the beginning.
In the meanwhile I’m happy to get your feedback what you think about SUCCESS and to learn about your experience regarding information design in the context of Business Intelligence.

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