Businesswoman touching digital tablet in officeAt SAP, we take data visualization and dashboards seriously. Our customers make more money when they can predict problems, identify solutions, and make better, faster decisions. And this happens when you have good visualizations. This isn’t the same as a pretty visualization. Not that I’m advocating ugly but I am advocating that we make clear communication and business impact the first goal.

Whether you’re an analyst presenting your agile data discovery or designing the CEO’s key performance indicators (KPI) dashboard – good visualization design is all about meeting business goals. It’s about solving that particular problem with a clear message so that leadership can make confident decisions that increase the bottom line. We hope to help our customers do exactly this.

Enter our data celebrity – Wayne Eckerson. Recently, we teamed up with Wayne and asked him to write a white paper that would share his experience and findings as they relate to the power of visualization.

For those of you that don’t know Wayne, he’s the founder of the Eckerson Group, the author of two widely read books “Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business” and “The Secrets of Analytical Leaders: Insights from Information Insiders” and an avid blogger. With such a background, who better to advise our customers on visualization best practices?

Wayne’s resulting white paper “See, Know, Act” how Visual Design Standards Improve Analytical Literacy” talks about the power of visualizations to communicate information quickly but makes the point that data visualization is in its infancy and many companies fall into the trap of using pseudo designers to create dashboards. What gets “lost in the headlong creative rush” is the very message behind the data that induces leaders to know, decide, and act.

The paper recommends that companies adopt visual standards since data visualization experts are a scarce and expensive commodity. Wayne defines a visual standard as “a visual design standard forms a common language and syntax for creating and consuming visualizations throughout a company.” He also discusses some steps for creating your own visual design standards. But for those who find that daunting, he talks about a non-profit organization, International Business Communication Standards (IBCS) which has spent years developing a comprehensive visual standard. (You can read more about IBCS in this white paper.) SAP is certified to support IBCS standards with partner graphomate.

Guidelines for Visual Standards:
Here are nine guidelines, outlined in the paper, that can get you 80% of the benefit of adopting a full design standard.

1) Less is more. Make every pixel and word count
2) Avoid decorative use of graphics
3) Avoid three-dimensional chart types
4) Avoid pie charts
5) Start bar charts at zero
6) Use bullet graphs instead of gauges to save space
7) Use sparklines to show trends over time
8) Show time going from left to right on the X-axis
9) Use color only to highlight or accentuate meaning

Most organizations don’t have the skills and experience needed to create effective data visualizations. If yours is one of those organizations, a good place to start is to use best practices developed and honed over time by International Business Communication Standards. And they should put in place well-defined processes for creating, updating, and maintaining the standard to reap the benefits of data visualization in extracting meaning and action for business leaders.

You can follow Wayne Eckerson at @wEckerson and me at @AnitaGibbings.