»Me, myself and BI«

Bissantz ponders


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The fundamentals of management information (6)

In the past six postings, we have listed and explained the essential topics and terms for everyone who is directly (or indirectly) responsible for designing management information and Business Intelligence systems. Finally, our list is complete – for now at least.

Scale

An important component of good reports. Values with up to three digits are easy to read. If you are working with large values, you should scale them in thousands or millions and use decimals sparingly. If you want to report information in multiple currencies, you need to note that in your report as well. You should display long time series adjusted for inflation. Otherwise, you may only be showing the general price increase. Data with large differences in values are problematic: Scales in millions produce false nulls for small objects. Using different scales in the same visualization is rarely a good solution. A better alternative is to create a summary of smaller objects.


One topic that we frequently discuss at our forums is: What factors determine if the time that you invest in management information is worth the effort?

Scaling

Catch-all phrase for both the scale and its settings. Determines the integrity of a visualization. The right scaling depends on the → perspective priority. Bella has already covered all of the important rules (e.g. Don’t chop off heads or feet. Use logarithmic scales for line charts with large differences among the values. Scale column sparklines cell by cell and bar sparklines column by column.). In DeltaMaster, you can set a scale with robust start values and set the settings in detail.

Self-Service BI

Data marts and application for management information that are managed by local departments. Self-service BI requires an intuitive usage concept. DeltaMaster is more than suitable for self-service but we feel defining measures and targets for measuring business performance is a job for managers. Too much self-service can (but doesn’t always have to) get in the way.

Semantic Zoom → Zoom

Size breaks

A challenge for visualization. Size breaks occur when very large and small objects are presented in the same chart. The smaller the objects in columns or bars are, the less you can see the differences among them by nature. Occasionally, people may want to hide bars or columns. This, however, really distorts the presentation because the most important objects are underemphasized and reader’s focus is directed to the resulting gaps. The better alternative can actually be to let small things look small. When numbers are aligned vertically and, of course, the appro­priate scale has been used, we can read them quickly and understand them. If you need an equally good way to differentiate extremely different values of all sizes, DeltaMaster offers an elegant solution that uses dot bars and dot columns based on a logarithmic scale.

Small Multiples

Tile visualization that iterates the same table or chart for various objects. Small multiples add rhythm to perception. They create a routine view that is easy on the brain. The first small multiples date back to the time of Galilei; Edward Tufte simply dug them up again centuries later. DeltaMaster can iterate the charts created by almost all of its analytic methods and display them as small multiples.

Sound animation

Using a series of sounds to encode data. When we see and hear something simultaneously, we understand it better. Our ear canals are always open, so to speak. We can close our eyes but not our ears. Teachers and advertisers have known that for ages. Yet we feel that potential isn’t used enough in management information and are currently promoting the capabilities that DeltaMaster has offered for some time now. You can use sound animation, for example, in sparklines. Just listen.

Sparklines

Word-size → charts, also known as microcharts or word-sized graphics. Sparklines were first suggested by Edward Tufte as a → line chart where only the last point is labeled. This single value suffices to understand the prior development. We developed the first software for sparklines. Sparklines integrate time into → graphic tables, which dramatically increases the value and density of information. DeltaMaster is a visionary product in the field of sparklines and offers several patented and highly important details to support the proper use of this new chart format.

Spreadmarts → Excel

Subject line

An element of management information with the greatest potential to pass through the bottleneck of → attention. When you email reports, they can go under in the flood of electronic messages just as quickly as they would in other channels. Since email was only invented in my generation, this fact hasn’t been known all that long. On the other hand, no one can resist reading the subject line of his or her email. Therefore, you can use the subject line to communicate the main message – optimally, with the main KPI – of the report that you are sending. DeltaMaster does that for you automatically.

Supervisory boards

Important recipients of management information because they bear more responsibility now than in the past. According to the business information systems expert Prof. Peter Mertens, it is not self-explanatory that supervisory board members have the necessary competency. There has also been a breach of trust between many supervisory and executive boards. With DeltaMaster, we build systems so that both parties receive information in the same structure but in different levels of detail. In addition, templates for supervisory board members must work well as offline and paper reports.

Symbols

Images that are understood without a label. Symbols play a huge role for control systems, e.g. on airports. In the current management information, they are primarily used as → icons for operating the system. Bella has criticized many poorly chosen symbols in infographics, for example, in her post “Symbols for worse”. Otto Neurath conducted pioneer work in the field of image statistics in the 1920’s. DeltaMaster can display symbols within cells to visualize smaller numbers as images.

Table, graphic

A type of table that supplements numerical values with bars, columns, circles, or → sparklines. Graphic tables combine the structure of a table with the attractive­ness of a chart. The compact, data-dense form of tables are both easy to read and understand at a glance. Graphics direct the human eye in an appealing manner, provide an intuitive impression of the value’s distribution, and reveal patterns. In other words, graphic tables use charts to steer the readers’ attention while giving them numbers to ponder. Graphic tables maintain their format much better and are easier to automate than other visualization forms because the graphical ele­ments adjust to the defined cell size without shifting the labels in the process. This makes them well-suited for → industrial reporting, which is why they have been a standard in DeltaMaster for many years now.

Templates

Standards for column heads, KPI views, labels, color selection, etc. In recent years, there have been more and more initiatives to standardize reporting. Rolf Hichert and we offer a comprehensive set of suggestions for creating enterprise standards. DeltaMaster recommends our standards through templates and default settings. We have even packed an arsenal of business, → data mining, and statistical methods into templates.

Three-D (3D)

Visualizing space, landscapes, or architecture is a good thing. In the case of charts, however, it almost never makes sense because they are so difficult to read. Bella has frequently snarled about that. In DeltaMaster, all automatically generated charts are in 2D, and we are even debating to remove 3D functions completely from all do-it-yourself methods.

Thresholds→ Exception Reporting

Ticker

A text that runs from one side of the screen to the other. Tickers present informa­tion without the need for interaction. They are useful when resolution is limited or the information should just run continuously at the edge of a screen. DeltaMaster can display numbers, texts, graphical elements, and images as tickers – even in individual cells. Different speeds represent different quantities or frequencies. We use tickers to visualize sequences, flows, or growth.

Time series

Analysis of a sequence of values at consecutive times. Times series can’t be displayed as a table and still have their problems as → line or → column charts. Choosing the proper scale is more problematic than most people would care to be­lieve, especially when it comes to comparing the developments of several objects with another. Time series are one of the strengths of DeltaMaster because we do a great deal – for example → comparable scales, → logarithmic scales, trend lines, differential areas, indexing, interpolation, and → sparklines – to enable in-depth integrity.

Touch operation

An invention that has made computers more human. It is just fun to see how tapping, wiping, and zooming can create a meaningful effect. The success of the iPhone and iPad, at least, has a lot to do with touch gestures. In the case of management information, touch gestures are no easy challenge. Similar reports are now supposed to work on different devices – sometimes with a mouse and keyboard, other times with just your fingers, which means no mouseover function and, therefore, no helpful tooltip to preview the effect of a click. DeltaMaster steps up to this challenge with new concepts for interaction.

Traffic lights

A good idea in theory. Most traffic light charts, however, are mediocre, which then even makes them dangerous. Colored signals should help you identify variances more quickly. Signals are wonderful – if you are able to recognize and verify the reason why the signal was sent. In most cases, however, they are often a reason behind major mishaps. The downfall of the German state-owned banks Sachsen LB and Bayern LB as well as the mismanagement scandal at Berlin-Brandenburg airport were all brought in connection with poorly made traffic light charts. In DeltaMaster you find traffic lights among others as “Report Weather“. The appli­cation severely sticks to the principal, displaying the signal and the underlying cause verifiably and at the same time with a better color concept (from a psychological standpoint).

Variance analysis

The heart of management information. It shows where you have exceeded or fallen short of your business goals and by how much. Many companies only provide this information once a month, which limits the value because it may already be too late. Well-managed companies use variance analysis to actively control their business performance. DeltaMaster supports variance analysis through patented methods and visualizations. We’re very proud of what we’re doing!

War-room solution → control center

Waterfall chart

Columns or bars arranged in levels to portray a sum. The bars or columns begin with the preceding element (i.e. instead of the base line) and are drawn either additive to the right or the top or subtractive to the left or downwards. This makes a very attractive visualization for → column charts, yet results in the usual labeling problems. In addition, when you attempt to bridge two periods, the graphical elements for the summands tend to be too small; → differentiation suffers as a result. DeltaMaster offers an elegant solution. In the case of → gross margin views, normal bars are better to show relative variances because readers can recognize outliers more quickly. The transition from revenues to gross profit is usually trivial.

Zebra crossing

Coloring the row background using two alternating shades of brightness. Zebra crossings hold long rows together nicely but can be stressful on the eyes when the contrasts are too great. (Think back to the days of continuous green-bar paper printouts…) They quickly conflict with elements for organizing or grouping. DeltaMaster doesn’t use stripes anywhere and utilizes the magical effects of white space and gaps in layouts, just as the great graphic designer Otl Aicher did.

Zoom

Enlarging images, texts, or graphics. Zooming only has an effect when the → resolution changes as well. On a computer that means that you do not simply see the same image or graphic but rather a new one with a smaller section but with just as many pixels. In the case of text, you change to larger fonts. DeltaMaster uses a patented semantic zoom for sparklines that ensure that zooming adds new detail. This is designed to imitate the mental zoom of the human brain. When an object interests us, our attention draws it closer so that it appears larger than it really is.

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