05 Nov 2015

Design-led analytics: How can you create engaging analytics?

Alan Soltani

HOW TO ENGAGE YOUR AUDIENCE WITH DATA ANALYTICS 

Data is everywhere in business. But how do you present it in the most engaging way possible? BI tools such as Tableau and QlikView have capitalised on this and are fighting a battle to stake a claim on the title of 'market leader' in data analytics and data visualisation. With both Tableau and Qlik posting revenues of over $400 million in 2014 and hundreds of competitors joining the scene in the last few years, the trajectory of business analytics is only going in one direction.

With analytics now established as a necessary tool in every corporate tool-kit, there is a large and growing demand for dashboards that can provide insight to employees at all levels of business.

This blog explores how incorporating design principles can help to gain user acceptance and ensure long-term usage of a commissioned solution. 

The challenge for data visualisation consultants is to produce an engaging dashboard that users continue to find value in long after development is complete. The most common reasons for the under-utilisation of a dashboard are:  

  1. Poor user experience
  2. Overly technical analysis
  3. Aimed at too wide an audience 

This blog will focus on addressing the first point and look at how combining creative design with analytics produces a new and improved way of presenting information.

 Consider Figure 1 below where, using QlikView, I present a distribution of employees age in three different charts:  




Figure 1. An example of CHARTS in Qlik
View: distribution of employees age   

  1. The first chart is pretty much out-of-the-box QlikView with a standard grey title, black border and single-coloured chart, while the axes provide scale and additional information. This chart could be improved both from a design aspect and through data visualisation best practice.
  2. The second chart presents the information more clearly by doing away with the y-axis and adding bar labels, thus exhibiting good data viz principles. It is also pleasant to look at from a purely visual point of view, so it meets the brief to an acceptable standard.
  3. However, with some minor tweaks and additions, the second chart evolves into the third, which is visually more striking and attractive to a user. 

 As a constituent part of a dashboard (see Figure 2), this improved chart design attracts the user's natural curiosity and invites them to engage, rather than provide a series of plain, one-dimensional graphs in the style of the first chart.   

So, how have we made this leap from analytics to 'design-led analytics'? There are three easily implemented principles set out below that help move our visualisations to the next level:

  1. Iconography
  2. Background colour
  3. Borders - or lack thereof  

1. ICONOGRAPHY  

A common adage to data visualisation consultants is that "every object on your dashboard should provide data insight", but this rule is overly restrictive. It can lead to bland dashboards that provide lots of information but are not engaging enough to be used in the long-term.The addition of relevant icons and graphics to a dashboard has the effect of adding depth and flavour. They draw the user's eye and act as a visual aid to understand what is being presented. 

A good example of using clear design principles and engaging graphics is on the London Underground. The symbol for a tube station is an internationally recognised graphic and draws the eye everywhere it appears. Re-creating this familiarity on a dashboard is a great way to get user buy-in. 

In Figure 2  below there is a graphic showing a man and woman which also acts as a colour legend. This graphic does not add any data value and is using quite a lot of dashboard real estate, but it adds a lot to the visual impact and allure of the overall viz. It makes the dashboard fun, engaging and ultimately better than if we had spread out the actual charts a bit more. 

 

 Figure 2. Data visualisation incorporating iconography to improve users' engagement 

2. Background colour  

A white or lightly coloured dashboard background is cleaner and more modern, providing a sense of openness and space. Starting with a simple backdrop enables charts to use colour with impact and generate further data insight. A dark coloured background would draw the user's eye away from such distinctions and hence make the dashboard less engaging. 

In addition, having a light coloured or white background proves important for the technique used in Figure 2 of segmenting the dashboard. See the next point for further details... 

3. Borders - or lack thereof 

Borders and outlines have a way of 'weighing down' a visualisation. The main issue here is that they seem like the natural way to segment a dashboard, so it is tempting to give every object a border. However, removing them encourages a lighter, more modern look and feel. 

So how can we segment our dashboards without using borders? The answer is to not be afraid of using white space to its full potential (See Figure 2). Each chart has a slightly darker background than the dashboard itself, giving it a border which is sleek and non-intrusive. In addition, the use of the thin blue line under the title gives an indication of the length of each chart, helping the user to frame it relative to others. 

This is just one example of how to design a dashboard with design principles in mind and there are probably plenty of other ways. Do not think of these as hard and fast rules to be applied across the board to every dashboard. Rather, they are ideas to consider when looking to evolve the look and feel of a viz. 

So what are your top tips for designing an engaging dashboard? If you have any, please leave a comment below.

Alan Soltani

About the author

As a consultant at Concentra, I work with our clients to draw value from their business data. Using tools such as Tableau, QlikView and Alteryx and maintaining an emphasis on 'design-led analytics', I shape and present data in the most visually effective way to generate insight. Beyond work, I spend most weekends playing competitive dodgeball at a significant cost to my social skills.

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