Everybody Loves a Graph–Tips for Graphs and Dashboards for Dynamics Data

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As intellectual as we may be, as right-brained or left-brained, as analytical or instinctive as we are, nearly all of us are visual creatures.  Bright colors, bold shapes, and jagged lines catch our eyes before we even know what we are looking at or if we are the least bit interested in it.  So it is not surprising that charts and graphs have made it into every nook and cranny of our lives—work, home, even entertainment.  Who doesn’t like to look at maps highlighting the counties with the highest per capita income or number of Ferraris (or restaurants or cats) per person?  Who isn’t enlightened by a pie chart of state expenditures or a disease distribution graph?  Who isn’t amazed by a graph that shows price increases compared to salary increases?  Admit it—everyone loves a graph!

But graphs and other visualizations, of course, are more than just fun and games and ever so much more than just a pretty face.  Good graphic representations of data

  • enable the reader to get an overall understanding of the content at a glance,
  • summarize hundreds, thousands, and even millions of data points into a form that can be easily comprehended and consumed, and
  • make it easier to remember the information presented.

Year-over-Year Sales and Margin Comparison - GraphA good visualization doesn’t just happen.  Here are a few tips for creating great graphs and dashboards for Dynamics data. Long before you put hand to mouse, you need to gain a thorough understanding of your data, your audience, and the story you are trying to tell or the action you are trying to incite.

Once you have worked out those three fundamentals, you will be able to determine what the best type of graph is for your purposes.  Data visualizations have come a long way since Edward R. Tufte wrote his groundbreaking book, Envisioning Information in 1990.  You can use a simple line graph to show a variable over time or show five, six, or even more variables using some of the more complex graph types like box plots, bubble graphs, radial graphs, binned box plots, and much more.  Each type is suited for particular data.  Do you have a time series or geospacial data?  Does you have discrete or continuous variables?  How many groups represent a variable for your whole population—less than ten or hundreds?  Are you more interested in seeing a trend or in seeing the exceptions or outliers?  See Stephen Few’s book Information Dashboard Design for a good description of when to use which type of graph.

You have to be careful though.  You can use a super-advanced visualization like an animated correlation matrix with a whole bunch of variables using many colors and shapes, making your graphs so crazy-complex that no one can understand them.  Resist the urge to do this.  If it takes more than a key and a sentence or two to help people understand your graph, you’ve gone too far.  Your visualizations need to be understandable, appropriate for the data, and relevant to the reader or they become just a piece of artwork.  Keep it as simple as possible.  If it doesn’t help your particular reader understand the precise story you are trying to tell, eliminate it or make a second graph.  Be brutal—when in doubt, leave it out.

Tweet: If it takes more than a key and a sentence or two to help people understand your graph, you’ve gone too far. http://ctt.ec/Sjgl3+

Keep in mind that sometimes a table is just better.  If your reader needs to see exact values, if you have a small number of data points, or if much of the data is so unique that is it difficult to group, a table may be the best format.  Don’t hesitate to use a table because it is old fashioned.  Tables are still around because they still work.

Project DashboardBIO Business Intelligence for Microsoft Dynamics is a self-service reporting, analysis, and business intelligence platform that enables you to turn your data into usable information through stunning visualizations and deliver them as reports or dashboards to your computer, tablet, or smart phone. Because BIO lets you change graphical formats with a click, you can easily try as many as you want to determine which visualization is the best way to present your data.  To see BIO in action, join us for a complimentary webinar.  Contact us by phone at 203.327.0800 or email at info@bio4analytics.com

By Sandi Richards Forman of BIO Analytics, Corp., Microsoft Dynamics Business Intelligence (BI) Solution Provider