A very smart fellow who tends to draw out some of the best intellectual clarity from me, recently sparked a rant concerning data visualizations. It started with a few of his own observations about detailed data visualizations versus simpler, less technical ways to achieve understanding through dashboards.

Here’s the rant and then some…


One aspect of data visualizations that few people recognize, has to do with data precision. In many cases involving dashboard and scorecards, it’s precise enough to show a big red arrow pointing down (or a green one pointing up). Providing more precision (i.e., tick marks, scale, aspect ratios) is meaningless and in many cases actually works contrary to the dashboarding objective. 

The most meaningful thing a successful dashboard can do to achieve success is to compel a change or action. In most cases big bright numbers on a canvas with stark contrast, is all that is required to achieve BI communication success.

There are exceptions to the elegant simplicity of a nicely designed Geckoboard or Klipfolio dashboard, but in almost every case where there are needs for greater detail and precision, there’s a degree of analytical process that is required to understand what the data is trying to say. In these exceptional scenarios, someone must look at the data with a degree of precision and must take time to ponder it, understand it, and then interpret it. As such, more technical charts and chart types are required. If the “analyst” doesn’t spend the time to also interpret it, everyone who looks at it must also take the time to perform the same interpretive and analytical steps.

This underscores the fundamental difference between tactical/operational visuals and analytical/strategic visuals.

We’re defining really two fairly different hemispheres of business intelligence. Failure to recognize these clear demarcations is what leads to poorly designed BI solutions. Ergo… failed BI projects typically involve people who should [ideally] see pre-processed, pre-interpreted, streamlined visuals, but who are presented with complex, busy, and mostly incomprehensible charts and typically in a mobility context where they are of least value.

I tend to focus on the former (tactical/operational visuals) because that realm is more about using data in a mobile-blended fashion to change business outcomes. To me, this is simply the more exciting area of BI and certainly has more opportunities for innovation, performance improvements, and opportunity to truly impact areas of companies that have never had access to operational data before. The Tactical/operational visuals side is also the realm that a larger part portion of an organization’s workforce can benefit from. Ergo… an extension of the consumerization of apps and BI.