Ryan Goodman’s Take on “Flashy vs. Few”

The following is in response to a discussion on the EverythingXcelsius group on LinkedIn. View discussion


The flashy aesthetics of Xcelsius has always been a debate sparked by data visualization experts and designers who like the “shiny” graphics provided by Xcelsius and other technologies. I disagree with customers or developers who passionately desire Flashy graphics over what Few emphasizes as well executed dashboard design by maximizing every inch of screen real estate. Xcelsius does not derive its value by looking shiny, and customers today don’t buy into flashy graphics over a solid value proposition both for business and/or IT stakeholders. Xcelsius sells because it provides value as a flexible point and click development tool for constructing BI dashboards. The sleek look of Xcelsius with simplistic interactivity captivates the attention of customers the same way that advertising does in print, web, and television media. After a customer purchases a dashboard technology like Xcelsius, the novelty of flashy widgets fades immediately once execution and implementation becomes priority number one.

Many software vendors offer their own “dashboard” technology, so customers exposure to these concepts have put pressure back on vendors to improve the technology. A gray scale dashboard with flat graphics is not exciting to look at compared to Xcelsius at first glance, but once you dive into the content and the visual communication aspects of dashboard design, Xcelsius can lose its luster if the dashboard designer does not understand technology and technique. I believe that the following are the top reasons that experts like Stephen Few get agitated with Xcelsius:

  1. Flashy Graphics and Gradients
  2. Missing data visualization controls and features
  3. Poor execution of best practices

1. Flashy Graphics and Gradients

I think the standard skin that comes bundled with Xcelsius 2008 is much better than the previous Apple OS (Aqua) skin from 2003, which was bubbly and over the top. Like everything, trends can dictate how design is applied during a certain period. In the early 2002 up until recent years, shiny graphics with heavy shadows and bevels dominated the discussion of why Xcelsius graphics produced tremendous interference. Good design does not adhere to technology trends, and data visualization shouldn’t be any different. What Edward Tufte advises in a statistical landscape and Stephan Few advises in a business landscape will not change much over time, regardless of technology. What I consider “interactive data visualization” borrows from these concepts but focuses data visualization as one important element of an interactive application. What most customers desire and adapt from Xcelsius technology is basic data visualization coupled with an interactive user experience for drilling, filtering, and inputting information. Users are comfortable with clean, yet stylized graphics in Vista and Apple operating systems, so there is no reason why interactive controls can’t be stylized with light gradients to provide some depth and create that perceived ease of use.

2. Missing data visualization controls and features

The demands for better data visualization controls has not changed much in recent years, but unfortunately Xcelsius has fallen behind with a lacking library of data visualization components that belong in every dashboard application. Why we still don’t have Microcharts, Sparklines, and Few’s bullet charts out of the box is beyond me. The Xcelsius SDK has opened the door for us to improve Xcelsius to a certain point, and there are excellent new add-on components coming on-line to fill this gap. This short list of components have become the de-facto standard for dashboards, so I look forward to having them at my disposal soon.

3. Poor execution of best practices

Everyone has a creative side, but someone who has never picked up a design book with an emphasis on data visualization should not implement dashboards for their own company and certainly not as a consultant. Dashboard development is not the forum to unleash creative juices when the intent is to monitor business performance. Working with clients who have educated themselves have definitely facilitated more productive engagements. Reading a book does not make you an expert, but it does allow for more constructive discussions and a smoother delivery of a dashboard. While I can appreciate Stephen Few’s passion for calling out vendors for product gaps, I do not think that marketing materials intended to illustrate technology capabilities should be placed into the critique bin. With that said, vendors need to put their best foot forward to prove that their technology can deliver adequate dashboards execution as well as marketing sizzle.

Hopefully this sparks interesting conversation, but more importantly I hope it will lead you to:

  • Submit enhancement requests to BOBJ and push them to continue improving and evolving the technology to support good design.
  • Practice design principles and guidelines set by the experts including Stephen Few.
  • Educate your customers or stakeholders who do not understand best practices and guidelines for good design.

Ryan Goodman is the Founder of Centigon Solutions, an SAP® software solution partner that is strategically focused on developing add-on products for use with Xcelsius®. To learn more about him, please visit our new Gurus page.

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19 Responses to “Ryan Goodman’s Take on “Flashy vs. Few””

  1. Great article, Ryan.

    While your first two points should be addressed through software (better color schemes and additional visualization components), I’m most intrigued by the third point. In one of his workshops, Stephen Few had this to say about the relationship between what people and software should bring to the table:

    “You supply your sight, intelligence, and skill. Your software makes the data visible, augments your intelligence, and supports your skill.”

    In other words, software should encourage good design by augmenting your intelligence with the knowledge of best practices and support your analytical skills by making analysis as intuitive as possible. Xcelsius, on the other hand, offers a flexible tool that lets people design dashboards however they want without restrictions for best practices. The “best practices” component for Xcelsius really comes from the users, who are encouraged to learn about dashboard design and apply what they learned when using the product. But it’s certainly not enforced. Because of this, I think Xcelsius will always be on shaky grounds when it comes to your third point.

    Thanks for your well-thought-out post. This is a topic I am very interested in. :)

    (For full disclosure purposes, I’m currently the interaction designer working on Xcelsius at SAP.)

  2. [...] Continued here:  Ryan Goodman's Take on “Flashy vs. Few” | Everything Xcelsius [...]

  3. [...] Here’s the URL: http://everythingxcelsius.com/2009/07/ryan-goodmans-take-on-flashy-vs-few.html [...]

  4. I like your angle and esp. what you develop in the 3rd point. Yet, I think the opposition between Few or Tufte and “flashy” is a bit overrated. The problem is that both schools of thoughts have zealots who think their way of doing is superior no matter what the context (and Few himself is not one of them). As David Jury said, rules can be broken, but never ignored.
    We can have appealing designs which are clear and unobtrusive. But just because a chart uses 3D or gradients, it shouldn’t be discarded as junk. There are plenty of sober but terrible charts already.

  5. [...] Goodman of Centigon Solutions wrote up his take on a recent discussion on LinkedIn that centered on the tension between data visualization that is [...]

  6. AlanIsGood says:

    I agree with your three points. I also like Jeremy’s comment about the ‘flashy opposition’ being a bit too evolved for the current state of affairs. While I’ve been designing dashboards for a few years now and I tend to agree with the anti-flash mentality, it still holds true that an aesthetically pleasing version of a lame chart is better than the flat, dated version of the same data.

    Everyday I see marketing reports and metrics presented using that blasted Excel chart wizard, and I think to myself, even the bloody Aqua theme would have served this chap right. Fact of the matter is, a bubbly, flashy chart still wins over the majority of the population. It’s mostly just we the Xcelsius learned that have stepped up and started preaching the dashboard best practices to each other. Marketing dashboard companies have made a lot of money selling agencies these crap dashboards that have way more WOW than functionality and context. Sad, but true.

  7. Pavlicko says:

    Couldn’t agree with you more on this post.

    By the way, in case anyone is looking for a super simple way to make sparklines, tiny bullet charts, etc… I found a great free resource – http://omnipotent.net/jquery.sparkline/

    Google also offers a nifty way of creating charts dynamically, if you have a web-based dashboard. Not sure if you’ve mentioned it before, but you can find the info here: http://code.google.com/apis/chart/

  8. Ryan says:

    Thank you all for the great comments and insight so far. I liked the following quote as a direction that software vendors and practitioners should be headed:

    “You supply your sight, intelligence, and skill. Your software makes the data visible, augments your intelligence, and supports your skill.”

    Unfortunately the reality is the following:

    “You supply your sight, intelligence, skill and taste. Your software should make the data visible, augment your intelligence, and support your skill.”

    When personal tastes go head to head with design best practices you experience the fallout that we have seen in forums and blogs. People can get emotional over their personal tastes, and having someone methodically pull apart your work can be a hit. Any designer should get used to clients and critics pulling apart their work, but it is the designer’s job to understand principles and methodologies to implement good design while solving the customer’s problems.

    Most of Few’s teachings originate from design concepts that are well practiced and understood in other facets of design. Dashboard design uses a medium that is not mature yet, though the growing volume of developers and practitioners is growing quickly. Having communities, blogs, and forums like this for us to discuss and refine concepts (and hopefully software) hassped up this maturity process for us all to benefit from. The beauty of design as a general concept is that you can break the rules, but you need to understand the rules first. I am guilty as charged for building publically facing dashboards that are nice to look at but serve marginal utility if they were deployed in a real production environment. With that said, I have built some excellent dashboards for customers that were simple and to the point, allowing the customer to monitor information while gaining insight to their business that they never had before. Here are three ways that I break the rules which are aligned to my 3 original points:

    1. I purposely make a dashboard more “flashy” because I want to draw attention for marketing purposes. In this case the user will not be using the dashboard, but rather evaluating technical features. I use color to create contrast and make the dashboard jump off the page. I recently did this with an NBA dashboard that I tried marketing to the NBA. http://ryangoodman.net/blog/index.php/2009/06/11/nba-draft-lottery-pick-analysis

    2. Another reason my dashboard may not be up to par is the software won’t let me achieve my desired specifications. I make do with what I have at my disposal if Xcelsius is missing a chart or component. There have been some great opportunities for me to inject multi-dimensional analysis with bubble charts or condense a lot of analysis on the screen using bullet charts but the features I need are not there.

    3. Finally, there are times where I purposely break the rules to try something unique. I admit that most of these experiments do not work, so I revert back to something else more simplistic. I think that many dashboard designers lack the discipline when an experiment has gone bad or are so wrapped up in the technical excellence and hours expended to take a step back and evaluate if the message delivery is correct.

    I will spend some time when I get back from my holiday next week and publish a well designed Xcelsius dashboard that we can critique and run by Stephen Few’s opinion.

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  10. I 100% agree with your points. I find myself trying to “impress” my business owners in the beginning. Then scale back once they see the power of the application. This seems to be the best approach. Then finally work with the users to have “real” customer feedback on useability.

  11. Robert A. says:

    I’m very interested in this “battle” (flashy, versus non-flashy), and I lean towards non-flashy.

    I think people are drawn to the flashy dashboards at first, but whey they actually start trying to *use* the dashboard they will see the merits & advantages of a non-flashy dashboard that clearly presents the data, and only uses a brighter color here and there to help draw their attention to something important.

    To (hopefully) help show people the advantage of a non-flashy dashboard (or graph) over a flashy one, I have created a collection of dashboards, with both a flashy & non-flashy version (and a button on each dashboard to allow users to easily switch between the two):


    Perhaps this technique of providing two versions, and an easy way to toggle between them, would even be useful in real-world dashboards(?) And it would be interesting to see which version the users preferred, in the long-run!

  12. Robert A. says:

    Agh! – I accidentally put the link to our internal web (which nobody will be able to get to)!
    Here’s the link I meant to use:


  13. Ryan Goodman says:

    This is great work. Thank you for sharing with us.

  14. Chris H. says:

    I disagree with your analogy that flashy is needed in a dashboard the “same way that advertising does in print, web, and television media.” The flashy in advertising resides in the advertising and the marketing, not always in the product. Calvin Klein underwear is still underwear, regardless of how racy the advertising is.

    Successfully marketing and selling a good BI tool does not require spinning, shiny widgets in the product features, just look at Tableau Software.

    Also, you say “there is no reason why interactive controls can’t be stylized with light gradients to provide some depth and create that perceived ease of use”. I wonder what authority ever said gradients provide ease of use? Just because others jumped off this cliff doesn’t mean you need to jump off too.

  15. Ryan Goodman says:

    Thank you for the comments Chris.

    In my statement, I never implied that the flashy is needed..
    “The sleek look of Xcelsius with simplistic interactivity captivates the attention of customers the same way that advertising does in print, web, and television media”

    I was making an observation based on what I see on a day-to-day basis.. Our exposure to advertising through various media (web, tv, and print) is intended to invoke emotion. The reality is that many people who see Xcelsius for the first time have a similar emotional reaction based how the product looks, and the spinning and shiny widgets certainly does contribute. I agree with you that Tableu’s approach is well done, in that most of their dashboard examples apply simple and relatively easy to understand information, as opposed to some of the Xcelsius examples floating around. I have seen countless Xcelsius deals close over other technologies because “Xcelsius looked better.” Looks will only get you so far just like the underwear advertising. If the product does not deliver based on the customer’s expectations, the product will become shelf-ware.

    On your second comment…

    You are absolutely correct, that a gradient or subtle styling does not have direct impact on ease of use; at least in a positive way. However, an application’s incorporation of familiar navigation paradigms and visual controls is a contributing factor that does impacts ease of use. Most of the Xcelsius skins borrow design cues from Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe, (with a web 2.0 flare) and applies them to common web navigation controls. While dashboards do not need gradients and drop shadows to effectively communicate quantitative data, the use of subtle gradients within navigation controls does provide some depth making the compilation more interesting. I am definitely not the authority in the psychology of this, but organizations like Apple, who are thought leaders in user experience design, have been perfecting this over the years. If Web 1.0 controls were good enough, why do thought leaders like Google to Apple spend so many resources refining their web control aesthetics?

    This may be a null point based on your critique of my original misleading statement, but I do appreciate you pointing it out so I could take the time to respond and continue this thread.

    Xcelsius skin comparisonhttp://ryangoodman.net/blog/media/skindemo/skin.gif

  16. Rob says:

    This is a great conversation. I know that in my company, we sell dashboards. We have structured our dashboards to revolve around telling a story with the data. At the end of the story we arrive at a decision that needs to be made. I often wonder about the “flashy” part of our dashboards, but it’s what sells. We always use a 3d chart or graph because it looks better than the flat counterpart. Does this mean that it doesn’t serve the purpose? No, not in my opinion. It is however my job to make sure the dashboard developer doesn’t go overboard, but rather sticks to the story line, and delivers the right message for the information displayed.

    I have noticed that many people will use Xcelsius for displaying information much like in a webi report. This is where we really break away. I use Xcelsius strategically for answering specific business case questions. This is of course not the only way to use it, but it’s what we provide our customers.

    I think that maybe the original point to all of this is being mindful of the balance between “Flashy” and Functional. because if your too much one way or the other you may have missed the boat.

  17. Amit Mathur says:

    Well we need to understand the majority use of the dashboards. Its most widely used for presentation among the management group/people seated on top seats with limited Technical knowledge. For them its generally the Flashy looks and appearence which counts and obviously the data.Xcelsius does provide them that Flashy look but eventually their expectation keeps on increasing. The visualization will differ from individual to individual and since we have opportunity of developing our own sdk’s for Xcelsius, it does elevates one’s insight and creativity.

  18. [...] Here’s the URL: http://everythingxcelsius.com/2009/07/ryan-goodmans-take-on-flashy-vs-few.html [...]

  19. [...] My Take on Flash vs Few - The controversy around this post was just amazing [...]

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