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:
- Flashy Graphics and Gradients
- Missing data visualization controls and features
- 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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