Advanced Savers

I try to use trains a lot (even more so now, thanks to rising fuel prices) and there is one pattern in particular that really irritates me. Regardless of train operator, it appears all ticket collectors have been on the same ‘How to reduce your passenger levels’ training course.

The announcement overheard today went along the lines (the train was about to depart the station):

“If you have an Advanced Saver ticket, it must be for this train. The departure time will be printed on your ticket. If your ticket is for a different time it will not be valid. You will be required to purchase a new ticket for this journey if you choose to stay on the train.”

In other words, get off the damn train if you bought a cheap ticket and it wasn’t for this time.

Now, to be fair, the rules are pretty clear when you purchase Advanced Saver tickets. But here’s the irony. This train was the last one before rush hour started. There were all of 5 people in my carriage. Why oh why would the train operator want to throw people off an empty train? It creates the double-whammy of saving nothing (the reduced weight is unlikely to make a dent on the amount of fuel used to run the train) and potentially adding to over-crowding on the next train, exacerbated by a bunch of pissed off customers.

By all means, have the rule. But for goodness sake, allow the ticket collectors to use their brains. If the train is empty, turn a blind eye. Gently remind the passenger about the rules and make it clear that an exception can be made this time only because the train isn’t full. You have happy customers and more space available on the next train, which might be busier than yours. If the train is full, enforce the rule to the letter. That’s only fair to those who have paid for tickets specifically for this train.

I love what technology can do to make systems better. But oh so often, there are simple changes you can make to improve services, sales and profits. And they cost nothing at all.

Why we make flawed decisions

Three great TED talks demonstrating how flawed the human decision-making process can be and why happiness is always relative. Enjoy!

Barry Schwartz: The Paradox of Choice

[ba-youtubeflex videoid=”VO6XEQIsCoM”]

Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce

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Dan Gilbert: Stumbling upon Happiness

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We are now responsible

Others have pondered whether one of the side effects of the blogging phenomena will be a challenge to traditional politics. I hope so. At times, it feels like the physical world is out of sync. Catching up on some reading today, I stumbled across a quote that neatly summed up what we could/should be doing…

“In the Wiki world, everyone has access to the same knowledge. Many people
no longer feel that experts have additional authority. If knowledge is
power, then today everyone has enormous power. What we need to do is get
all of the people to take responsibility for the knowledge that we all possess.”

– Thomas Homer-Dixon, interview in New Scientist (subscription required to access full article)

Dashboard Design

As a follow on to a previous post – Diluted information, this is a quick review of just two ideas within Stephen Few’s excellent book – Information Dashboard Design.

Spark Lines

Spark lines are an idea from Edward Tufte, author of books such as Envisioning Information. The concept of a spark line is simplicity itself – take a line graph and delete everything but the line itself. This enables you to present a big chunk of information in a very small space, perfect for dashboards. Take the following example:

This is fairly typical of a dashboard or scorecard used to present key performance indicators (KPIs). You’ve got the sales figure, a green light and an arrow going in the right direction. Sales must be good! But how much information do you really have here? You know that your sales number is in a good position today, and compared to your last measurement it is going in the right direction. What does that information really tell you?.

Let’s use a sparkline instead:

The spark line enables you to present a far bigger range of figures with minimal extra space. When you use the traffic light and arrow, you can only see the last two points on this line. But now you can potentially see a whole year’s worth of data. And what does this spark line tell you? That sales are currently good and going in the right direction, but the pattern through the year looks very erratic. Who knows what next month’s figures will look like. Why is that? Can anything be done to settle into a growth curve or are the causes all external and out of your control? Are your suppliers letting you down, disrupting your production line? The spark line encourages you to investigate, providing you with an opportunity to be proactive in resolving issues. Traffic lights create a reactive approach – you only start to investigate when they go red or the arrow is already pointing in the wrong direction.

Bullet Graphs

Bullet graphs are an idea from Stephen Few, providing an alternative to the popular dashboard tool – gauges. Another example:

This is a classic gauge, displaying a measure and the range of values that indicate where you would like it to be. In this case, customer satisfaction is healthily in the green at above 75%. But again, how much information have you been given? A measure and where it sits within a range. That gauge takes up an awful lot of screen estate to give you so little. Enter the bullet graph:

A bullet graph is the perfect diet – it slims down a gauge and gives you extra value to boot. Styled like a thermometer, you can still see the range of values, but now a simple line indicates your current measure. But in addition, the horizontal line can provide a clear alternative measure (this is harder to do with the gauge, where it ends up looking like half a clock). That horizontal line might represent last month’s figure, or could represent the target. Either way, you now have a comparative measure.

To put these two ideas together, it’s worth comparing two dashboards to demonstrate how much or how little information is often presented:

Here is a classic dashboard, with lots of pretty graphs and charts. But, before you even figure out what it all means, how much does it really tell you? Now let’s look at an example that uses spark lines and bullet graphs:

Before you even start to interpret what this dashboard contains, you can see a lot more information is available in a format that you can analyse. And now let’s take it a stage further… Let’s take that dashboard out of the browser…

This screenshot is Excel – your good ol’ spreadsheet (and it’s not even the latest version at that). This simple screen of data inside Excel contains more useful information than I’ve seen in far more complex and expensive business intelligence tools.

How do you create a spark line in Excel? Simple – just create a normal line chart and delete out everything other than the line (go into Chart Options, delete the grid lines, the axis, the heading, the background, everything!).

The screenshots above are all available over on The Dashboard Spy’s web site, a blog I recommend you subscribe to if you are interested in this subject. Having read Stephen Few’s book, it is great fun to critique the different dashboards on display there. I was going to create my own examples in Excel, but others beat me to it and I’m all for not reinventing the wheel. I’ll use a later post to explore if/how Excel 2007’s new data visualisations can enhance dashboards… …and since starting this post, The Dashboard Spy has beaten me to it again.

Final tip

If you are tasked with designing a dashboard or scorecard, there is one important question you should always ask the audience who will be using the end result. Is the dashboard being designed to provide quick answers or prompt for more questions? Too often, the answer is the former when it should be the latter but that’s a whole different political question 🙂 Let’s just focus on designing for the desired role…

Going back to the first image – the sale figure with a green traffic light and an arrow going upwards. That is a classic ‘answer’ KPI. Are my sales good? Yup! Are they going in the right direction? Yup! Great! I can move on to the next task. If that really is all the audience wants to know, then stick with the colourful images and minimal content. The irony is, dashboards that provide quick answers are largely redundant any way. Quick answers are answers you already know and just want validated. If you are interested in sales, you are going to know if the company is doing well or not before you even look
at that dashboard. Just walk down the corridor, lurk by the water cooler, linger in the toilet even – you’ll know from the atmosphere within the office if your sales are good or not. It won’t necessarily tell you whether they are going to stay that way…

The spark line is far more suited to the valuable use of a dashboard – to prompt proactive investigations when the numbers may be good but don’t look quite right…

Technorati Tag: Dashboard

Diluted Information

It’s always funny when culture leads to misinterpreting a joke. Whilst chatting with someone during the SharePoint conference earlier this year, they muttered how BSM was an apt acronym for Business Scorecard Manager 2005. I wondered what on earth business scorecards had to do with the British School of Motoring before it dawned on me that they were referring to a completely different use for the letters BS…

…and whilst they may have been poking fun at the product itself, the same cynicism could also be applied to business scorecards in general as they become easier to build and deploy…

Intelligence in its various forms (such as reports, portals, dashboards, and scorecards) has been on IT’s radar for quite some time now, but 2007 is likely to be the year it finally arrives as an everyday tool on the desktop. (I think it will be 2008+ before it is successfully adopted on mobile devices, given how long it is taking companies to provide even basic web sites in a format suitable for small screens and flaky network connections.) Gartner has highlighted collective intelligence within their top three emerging technologies for 2007. Microsoft is building up a complete stack of maturing business intelligence (BI) tools, having started with the launch of SQL Server 2005 back in November 2005 and now culminating in the launch of Office 2007, a revamped SharePoint Server 2007 containing all sorts of information management goodies, and a BI portal to rule them all: PerformancePoint Server 2007. And I suspect good ol’ Excel will trump the lot thanks to its popularity combined with new features that make data visualisations incredibly easy.

The technology to analyse and present information is improving, and there is no shortage of information waiting to be mined for ideas. During a Gartner conference I attended in 2005, I heard an interesting view point that sums up the ever increasing quantity of information available: “…combined with lowering storage costs, will we start to see ‘write once, read never’?” It’s a powerful thought.

But before we get all giddy and excited about analysing anything and everything, we need to consider what outcomes we desire. There is little point in staring at a dashboard or scorecard if the information served up does not help make better decisions and/or influence actions. And one of the easiest traps to fall into (and there are many) is presenting too much information. Presenting too much information creates two issues: the paradox of choice and diluted messages.

The paradox of choice is a relatively simple concept – when presented with too many options, we are more likely to choose nothing at all. Doh! Barry Schwartz has written a whole book about this concept (guess what the title is!). To find out more:

Diluted messages is a different issue with the same end result. When we see/hear the same information over and over again, no matter how strong the message (powerful, wonderful, shocking, horrific, intense desire… whatever), its effects become diluted – they weaken to the point where we just don’t notice or care any more. A simple example to demonstrate this challenge was provided by film director Steven Spielberg in an interview last year. He was discussing the challenges with filming Jaws and how, when the mechanical shark broke, he couldn’t delay filming so had to create clever camera shots and create an impression that the shark was there even though you couldn’t see it:

“If I had made Jaws today, it would have been a digital shark that never breaks. I would have have used it four times as much and the film would have been four times less scary…”

Take note! As business intelligence tools become pervasive throughout organisations, the need for good BI design will become increasingly important to ensure that the right information is served up in the right format when and where it is needed to make decisions and act on them.

I plan to write more on this subject throughout the winter and cover some of the other traps that can make intelligence worthless. But if you are interested the design side, without doubt the best place to start is a book called “Information Dashboard Design” by Stephen Few published earlier this year. And once you have read it, visit The Dashboard Spy blog for samples of good and bad designs.

Related blog posts:

Hmmm, I’m beginning to wonder if there is a connection between the month of October and my brain getting interested in intelligence…

Sticky Information

[update] Actually, it was the weekend before last. I forgot to publish this post last week…

I was reading a couple of unrelated articles in The Sunday Times last weekend that shared a common theme – the stickiness of information. It made me think (yes, my brain is still in recovery). On the one hand, we can be very lazy about acquiring information (Google trumps the local library for starters), spectacularly avoiding it when we don’t like what it tells us. But on the other hand, when we find information that fits our expectations, it becomes very sticky and we are reluctant to let it go. I believe this has important consequences for information systems design.

Article no.1 – Michael Schumacher

In Formula 1 motor racing, Michael Schumacher has been at the top for over a decade and the results speak for themselves. Seven world championships and in the running for an eighth. With his retirement all but announced (and it was on Sunday), Martin Brundle wrote an article covering Schumacher’s career and the reasons why he won’t be remembered just as a great champion.

“He cannot see when he crosses the line between tough but fair and ruthless but foul… exacerbated by his total belief that he cannot be wrong. He has a default mode in the car: if you’re going to pass him, he will drive you off the road.”

Brundle goes on to list some examples, including two title-deciding races that saw the contenders seeing dust, literally. There were other incidents too, such as when his team-mate was required to move over to let him win, and when he won a race by delaying a penalty pit stop until his final lap to minimise the time he would lose. He didn’t break the rules but his behaviour didn’t fit with ‘fair play’, an emotive subject. And that’s why everybody remembers. For all the races he won, the pole positions, the podium finishes that by far outweigh incidents of questionable behaviour and the sheer brilliance of his driving skills, he’ll be remembered for the sticky information.

Article no.2 – Afghanistan

On a far more serious note, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan was back in the headlines. A comment in one of the many articles highlighted the challenge facing the NATO-led campaign:

“The Taliban have won the information war”, admitted a senior military officer last week. “Everyone is convinced we’re there to destroy the poppy and thus their livelihood. We’ve not provided any information to farmers so why should they think any different?”

Here is sticky information of a very different and far more dangerous nature, putting lives at risk. The story the farmers have been given fits with the evidence in front of their eyes and directly affects them in a bad way. Whose side would you take if you were in their shoes? How do you persuade them to believe you instead?

Fortunately, most information systems do not involve risking peoples’ lives. But information systems design rarely takes into account the sticky factor. Instead, the focus is usually on prioritising information based on its importance, and importance is usually determined by the sender rather than the receiver. Hence the home page of an intranet will be filled with business goals and news (e.g. “we’ve won a big new order for product X!”) that, at best, gets read once whilst the sticky information (e.g. “they’re going to outsource product X and make us all redundant”) travels through the unofficial grapevine. Next time you are designing a web site or thinking about adding another KPI (key performance indicator) to a dashboard, ask whether or not the information is sticky – will it change actions or will it be ignored? Is there existing sticky information that needs to be removed? Can it be removed?