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July 9, 2010

What's wrong with "visual" spend analytics?

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I've been spending time lately watching lots of videos and attending lots of webinars, with the idea of continuous improvement. Today I watched a recorded session on Tableau Software's website titled "Visual Spend Analytics."

While the content and topic were quite interesting, given I work in the consumer packaged goods industry, I was disappointed with several of the visualizations that the author presented. John used Tableau for all of his demonstration, showing primarily views that were built prior to the webinar. I could tell, given my experience with Tableau, that John made changes to the reports/visualizations that Tableau would create automatically itself. In other words, some very basic best practices were broken.

Let's look at a few examples.

The first slide that caught me off guard, again given that the session was hosted by Tableau, was this pie chart.

While four slices isn't too awful, some of the "standard" design of the pie chart is.

  1. The largest slice should be first and it should start at the zero position.
  2. The legend is in an order that makes sense, but the slices don't match that order.
  3. The colors are way too strong.
  4. The third bullet on the left tells a good message, but if you want to see the true impact of that 97%, you need to start at the zero position.
If you insist on a pie chart, here's a better way to do it that addresses all of the rules I've outlined above, but again, a pie chart is not the most effective way to assign quantitative values to 2-D areas.

99 times out of 100, a bar chart is a better alternative to a pie chart. I would display this same set of data like this. I think this clearly demonstrates that there is high value placed on spend analysis.

A bit farther into the presentation, John was showing a table he built for a client. Let's examine it:

A few issues that I see include:

  1. The title of the graph is black with white font, making it difficult to read and it garners too much attention. A light gray background with a black regular font works better.
  2. The text in the table is blue. Why? What value does it add?
  3. A darker or double line to separate the rows from the total would make the total more distinct.
  4. Numbers (as well as their headers) that represent quantitative values should ALWAYS be aligned to the right. Aligning the data to the right allows for quicker comparisons of the values; it's much easier to find the bigger values.

Towards the end of the session, John showed how you can wrap all of the visualization together in a dashboard. While this makes perfect sense, he wasn't careful enough about the design. Let's look at two examples.
First, let's look at this one titled "Dashboard - Sub-Category":

Again it looks like John overrode the best practices that Tableau has built into it and it has taken away from the presentation of the data.

  1. The dashboard title is meaningless. Every dashboard title should be a statement/phrase that captures the attention of the reader and signals what they are looking at. An example might be: "Expected savings were not achieved in the most recent quarter"
  2. The background is of the entire dashboard is gray, making it difficult to read the black font against it. A white background is nearly always preferred.
  3. As before, the chart titles are black with white font. Choose a light gray background and a regular black font.
  4. Six pie charts. Really? Six? Why not bar charts? The purpose appears to be to show rank, in which case a bar chart is preferred.
  5. Each set of two pie charts can be combined into one bar chart. The results would be three bar charts.
  6. The color shelves and quick filters just seem off for some reason. The placement strikes me as needing cleaning up. I'd have to work on this.
The last dashboard John demonstrated was a map of their office sites.

Neat I guess, but I don't see any value in making it interactive. If this is a banner for a home page, then a guess the layout is ok, but if it's meant to give some useful information, then it needs some work:

  1. When someone views a dashboard, their eyes automatically go to the upper left corner of the chart. The first thing they see here is the company logo. This would be best placed on the upper right.
  2. The contact information should then be shown below the company logo, like he has it, but on the right.
  3. The quick filters should be on the right, whether this is a banner for a home page or not.
Every time I attend a webinar I learn something. While most of them are very well done, there are occasions where the presenter should have asked someone with a significant knowledge of visual data display to review the materials.

As part of the wrap up for the session, John said that the company was delivering "innovative analytics" that position them to be a "value added" vendor. Can they add value? Certainly, but they could add a lot more by following more best practices. Are the analytics "innovative?" I don't think so, but then again, I already work with this same type of information.

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