Am I close?
Excel users all over the world are facing similar problems today. But problems like these aren’t new. I first experienced them during the 1980 recession.
Spreadsheets were new back then. But I worked long hours with them to report and analyze my company’s business problems. First using VisiCalc, and then Lotus 1‑2‑3, I created hundreds of reports and analyses.
Even with those primitive tools I gave my managers some great reports -- many tall stacks of them. My managers hated those reports, even though they had asked for many of them. They hated them for a very good reason:
To get much value from my reports the managers needed to study them carefully…like homework. So, like homework, my managers usually set those pages aside until later. And then I would add another set of reports to the stack…
We were trapped. My managers needed that information desperately, buy they couldn’t or wouldn’t study my reports.
Then I discovered a short article in the Harvard Business Review that showed me how to escape that trap. The article completely changed my ideas about management reporting.
Here’s how it began:
Desperate to find solutions to our problems, I was working long hours to generate reports by the truckload…reports that my managers ignored. But this guy had found a way to replace that growing mountain of paper with just one sheet.
What a concept!
His example report was amazing. Like the examples shown on this page, it used many small charts to show trends in performance.
In just a few seconds, a page like the example at the right helped him and other managers get a true picture of performance. My mountain of paper never could have provided that insight, even if managers had studied the reports for hours.
Today, we would call Blake’s report a dashboard report.
How Science Supports Chart-Rich Dashboard Reports
In recent years, scientists have learned a lot about the way humans absorb visual information. Their findings support my enthusiasm for using small, simple charts for management reporting.
Specifically, the psychologists have explained why people can read
dashboard charts quickly, find their meaning automatically, and remember
many charts easily:
1. People Can Read Small Charts More Quickly Than Numbers
Research shows that as you read this sentence, your eye is making between two and five snapshots -- called saccades -- per second. At a typical reading distance, each saccade has a diameter about the size of the word "snapshot".
Each time you read a number in a report, your eye takes at least one snapshot. Reading many numbers requires many snapshots. Searching for trends and other patterns in all those numbers requires not only mental gymnastics, but many more snapshots.
Searching for patterns in numeric data is hard work!
In contrast, your managers and other readers can see the meaning of small, simple charts in less than a second. Readers can see trends, seasonalities, variances, correlations, and other patterns at a glance.
Searching for patterns in charted data is a breeze!
2. People Can Find Meaning In Charts Automatically
When humans see images, we automatically find connections with information in our long-term memory. Scientists call this “gist”.
When we look at an image, including charts, gist memory processes the information immediately and determines how it fits into our existing storehouse of knowledge. Before we even have time to think about it, our brain looks for patterns in the visual data.
Research shows that our brains can find the gist of an image as quickly as one-tenth of a second!
So when we use charts, we automatically give our brains a quick and easy way to
find meaning in our data.
3. People Can Remember a Massive Amount of Chart Content
“Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details”
This intriguing statement is also the title of an article published in the September, 2008, edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We found that observers could successfully remember details about thousands of images after only a single viewing,” the four authors from MIT wrote. “The present results demonstrate visual memory is a massive store that is not exhausted by a set of 2,500 detailed representations of objects.”
There are at least two practical reasons this discovery is important for management reporting.
First, it’s difficult for humans to remember numbers long enough to compare one set of them to others. But it’s easy for us to remember and compare one chart to others. Therefore, chart-rich reports give managers the ability to discover patterns of performance among other charts, patterns that lead to business insight.
Second, the easier it is for managers to remember the contents of their reports, the more valuable the reports become. This research shows that by converting numeric data to charts, we make it MUCH easier for managers to remember performance results.
When I first saw Blake’s dashboard, I didn’t know that scientists eventually would support my enthusiasm for his use of small charts. I just knew that I really wanted to give my managers a similar report.
Three Big Reasons
Resume and Excel Dashboards
If you give potential employers a copy of an Excel dashboard, you could achieve at least three objectives:
1. You could get their attention, and help them to remember you.
2. You could demonstrate your Excel skills in ways that few other Excel users could.
3. You could give them a list of measures of interest to their organizations, measures that you’re prepared to discuss in detail.
The final item probably is key. Your sample dashboard should contain performance measures, economic indicators, or other public data that would interest a potential employer in your industry. By choosing the measures carefully, you can discuss how your professional experience and capabilities are closely matched with the employer's needs.
A similar approach also could work with prospective clients.
Excel users all over the world are using my earlier dashboard products. Here's a recent summary of users by continent and country.
What attracted Excel users to my products were the pages of chart-rich dashboard reports.
What made Excel users loyal to my products was the system of formulas that controls and summarizes the data, and supports the charts.
Those simple formulas turn a mere page of charts into a powerful dashboard system.
The formulas pull the data you specify from the Excel database. They scale the data. They add units of measure. They convert date serial numbers into the date labels you specify. They synchronize target and actual data.
In short, those simple formulas are the hidden power of my Excel dashboard reports.
Compare IncSight QnE and IncSight DBTwo sets of Excel dashboard templates are available, IncSight DB and IncSight QnE. This table compares them.