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The Information Cannot Speak for Itself

Massive IT investment won't matter if users are unable to make sense of the data. With businesses reliant on information, presentation can no longer be an afterthought. Here's how you can improve that first impression.

Though critical to the success of information technology, nontechnical factors often go unnoticed. Industry voices frequently alert us to the more common nontechnical pitfalls: inadequate executive sponsorship, failed management of user expectations, and unrealistic project scope. But there's one more thing — and it has little to do with technology and nothing to do with project management. It's fundamental to the successful use of information. I'm talking about data presentation.

Business intelligence is a hot topic today — and rightfully so. Through BI and its cousins and aliases — decision support, data warehousing, and information management — we pay great attention to data acquisition, integration, cleansing, enrichment, access, analysis, and reporting. We pay comparatively little attention to the design practices needed to present data effectively and efficiently. The cost to business is insidious, for it is rarely recognized.

Unfortunately, no matter how much information you provide through the use of BI technology, it is only worthwhile to the degree that those who analyze and pass it on to others succeed in presenting it effectively.

Failure to Communicate

At the core of this problem is the presentation of critical quantitative information: the numbers that measure business performance. More often than not, the presentation of quantitative information fails to communicate information clearly and efficiently. In the course of your work, how many times have you heard information consumers plead: "Just show me the numbers!" Most quantitative data, such as key performance indicators (KPIs), are communicated in the form of tables and graphs. Unfortunately, most tables and graphs created in the course of business are designed poorly. Why? Very few of us — including financial analysts and other specialized report developers — have ever received training in effective table and graph design. Why not? In part, because too few examples exist of good design to expose the deficiencies of the tables and graphs that we produce and use every day.

Most data displays are time-consuming and difficult to read. They are filled with unnecessary information and visual fluff and at times are even misleading. In 1997, Edward R. Tufte, one of the world's leading experts in the visual presentation of information, convincingly demonstrated that the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, which resulted in the deaths of seven astronauts, was in part the result of poorly designed presentations to NASA officials about the potential risk of O-ring failure. Tufte felt that if the potential risk of O-ring failure in cold temperatures had been presented properly, decision makers would have understood the extreme risk involved and surely would have postponed the launch. An avoidable tragedy occurred because of an information presentation that was misleading. Every day, just like the officials at NASA, you rely on good data to inform your decisions. Lives may not be at stake, but livelihoods certainly are.

We invest billions of dollars annually in technology, but far too often it fails to deliver on the promise of improved productivity. "Do it yourself" software has lured us into the false hope that we need only install and make technology available for use and the rest will take care of itself. For instance, the proliferation of electronic spreadsheet software back in the PC's early days made the creation of tables and graphs as easy as "1-2-3" (literally, Lotus Development's Lotus 1-2-3 at the time). For many companies, perhaps it was too easy.

Producing information through the use of a computer often gives the results an air of authenticity that they don't deserve. To use information technology effectively, people still need fundamental skills in the analysis and presentation of information — skills they ignore at their peril. A relatively small investment in the development of skills can make the difference between the success and failure of a large investment in the whole stack of technology put in place to create an efficient and effective decision-making and information flow.

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