I recently saw a presentation by a Florida-based business intelligence company called VisualCue Technologies. They offer a unique, icon-based dashboard that they position as operational intelligence. Operational meaning that it visually captures the state of a business process. Take a look at the user interface and the manner in which they map KPIs to vector infographic icons called cues – it is really different.
I was a bit intrigued by VisualCue’s creative KPI approach and implementation. It is common in business intelligence to design dashboards and KPIs that might be icon-like around business processes. In some aspects, what I saw reminded me of a few mobile BI apps like former Extended Results PushBI now sold as TIBCO Spotfire Mobile Metrics, RoamBI, DataZen and Transpara.
Even Visio’s data visualization capabilities that I have showcased in the past came to mind as I watched the video demo. However unlike Visio’s data-driven diagrams, VisualCue’s icons can be interactively filtered and sorted like the mobile BI app KPIs.
The VisualCue icon cues are fun and can be completely customized with design applications like Adobe Illustrator that create vector graphics. Unfortunately I have not played hands-on with this product yet to walk you through that process. Let’s see if they allow me to play with it! If so, then I will write a follow-up blog. I do have Adobe Illustrator and would love to create a few custom cues for my “husband metrics dashboard”. Hmmmm…empty coffee cups and dirty socks on the floor KPIs could be shown as small mounds that grow over time, sports watching cue could be a simple color coded football, etc. I am just kidding! I dearly love my husband. I would actually enjoy seeing his VisualCue icons for my “wife metrics dashboard” where the cooking pan KPI would undoubtedly reflect my frequent flops in that area. In all seriousness, I can see this solution being successfully applied to a variety of situations. I can also see a few challenges that might be inevitable.
I could see VisualCue being fantastic for sports, youth, educational, competitions, entertainment, marketing, sales and just about any scenario where you’d overlay cues/icons on top of a map or background image. VisualCue already markets to call centers, logistics companies and showcases business process overviews. Those are indeed good use cases for communicating data with icons.
One of the concerns that immediately came to my mind was Few and Tufte data visualization best practices. There are valid reasons for using bar charts, treemaps and bullet charts to effectively, quickly and universally communicate status. If you have not read Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten, Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis or Information Dashboard Design, I highly recommend those books for improving your understanding of human visual perception. I listed a few more of my favorite data visualization books on slide 4 in my Best Practice Data Visualization SlideShare presentation.
I do question if tiny cue elements like headphones can be easily deciphered like a traditional KPI on a quick skim in a time-starved, mobile BI world. Also are icons truly universally understood? One of the BI architects that I worked with in the past shared a story about a soda-pop company wanting icons of bottles showing great KPI performance with an empty bottle and poor results with a full bottle. It seemed counter-intuitive to me but to that company, an empty soda-pop bottle meant more sales. When I travel internationally, I don’t always understand the icons on signs. This issue could be partially mitigated with training.
Another challenge that I can see right away with a design like this is information overload = too many cues becoming visual noise. When I see a sea of colored icons, it is a bit overwhelming and exceptionally difficult to mentally aggregate an overall performance metric. On a high level it may be easy to identify a few issues but most of the time my customers are measuring to a specific metric value that they literally obsess upon. It would be tough to translate many cues to a value of say 97.5%. VisualCue’s filtering and grouping capabilities might help alleviate that concern.
Lastly I had questions around designing for the color-blind, a significant and very real dashboard issue waaaaay too many people overlook. There are a lot of color-blind people in the world all around you that can’t easily detect greens from reds. Typically in color-blind dashboard designs, you use different shapes, color shade variations or color-blind palettes. After reaching out to VisualCue to see how they address color-blindness with their solution since they showcase poor color-blind designs using classic green-yellow-red, I was informed that they can use varied patterns in the cue colors.
Overall, I do like VisualCue’s niche solution. In the analytics market, we are seeing more and more infographics popping up. I don’t know if using an icon will be taken seriously as a viable means for communicating performance. We all know folks that will joke around about these icons in the office. On the other hand, think about the child in our human spirit that strives to get a gold-star or smiley face sticker…VisualCue may influence desired behaviors in a positive manner far better than a colored circle, triangle or square ever could. Ultimately it is up to you to be responsible and thoughtful in how you choose to communicate performance metrics and design dashboards.