Over the last several months, we have discussed how the user profile of the stakeholders and their functionality requirements and business content needs have dictated the choice of framework for the corporate performance management (CPM) dashboard. This month, we will focus on how some of the more visual aspects of a CPM dashboard (such as color harmony and highlighting, and icon guides) contribute to a more positive business user experience and facilitate business user empowerment. Given the complexity and sheer volume of information that needs to be synthesized, how the information is architected, navigated and presented is as critical as the information content itself. Empowering the business user to identify, measure and manage the key drivers of business success - the proverbial needle in the haystack - is the true barometer of an effective performance management dashboard.

Color is an important aspect of the dashboard's visual design from multiple perspectives. The look of the dashboard, navigation trails and drill-down options are all impacted by the selected color theme. It is important that the selected color theme facilitate information access and be as unobtrusive as possible. The differences between a high-contrast vivid color scheme and a low-contrast subdued color scheme are illustrated in Figure 1. Although the bright colors of the vivid color scheme might be appropriate for highlighting problem metrics and values, the more subdued colors deliver a color harmony experience with visual interest and a sense of order and should, therefore, be incorporated in the design of the dashboard interface.

Figure 1: Color Schemes

The symbolism associated with specific colors can also be used in concert with icons to improve information visualization. Red, with its meaning of danger, dramatics and call to action, can be combined with a minus sign to indicate that the key performance indicators (KPIs) have fallen short of targets. Yellow stoplights can illuminate an uncertain and cautionary situation where management needs to selectively monitor KPIs. Green symbolizes health, vitality and growth. Consequently, green beacons or check marks can provide a sense of accomplishment and validate that KPI trends and levels meet or exceed targets.

The conventional wisdom is that information is now doubling every two years. The challenge to most organizations is how to shift the focus from data gathering and integration to business analysis. The beauty of a CPM dashboard is the ability to contextualize information into manageable chunks of knowledge that is actionable. Within the CPM dashboard, color plays a key role in implementing contextualization and facilitating the business analysis process from several important perspectives. The use of color:

  • Alerts point changes. Colored numbers and text identify significant changes in KPIs and target values.
  • Signifies directional changes. Colored icons indicate directional change of KPIs.
  • Identifies trends. Colored beacons identify developing KPI trends by comparing latest data to a multiperiod rolling average.
  • Facilitates navigation. Colored guides assist navigation in the KPI drill-down to more detailed analysis on key business drivers and problems.
  • Demarcates screen elements into groups. Color blocks combine different elements of the dashboard into cohesive story-lined KPI modules.
  • Highlights information. Color highlighting accentuates prominent text, focuses attention on important graph elements and emphasizes the important data in tables and reports.
  • Simplifies relationships. Color-coding simplifies complex relationships by using colors to emphasize distinct processes and components.
  • Prioritizes action. Color-coding of ranking (e.g., bottom 10, largest variance, etc.) emphasizes those KPIs requiring immediate attention.

Color design also plays an important role in the appearance of charts (data graphics, backgrounds, borders, etc.), which will be discussed in next month's column.
As mentioned earlier, the beauty of a CPM dashboard is the ability to contextualize information into manageable chunks of knowledge that is actionable. The next challenge is to understand and prioritize the key business issues. Icons facilitate this challenge by taking advantage of our powerful visual pattern perception capability to recognize pictures and visual clues far more easily than number or text representations of the same things. Because symbols take up less space than words, more efficient use of the screen real estate is also realized. As seen in Figure 2, icons for the CPM dashboard can exhibit multiple functionalities. This can be as simple as capturing the current KPI status (with stoplights, checks) or monitoring alerts (with stars and diamonds). More complex activities, such as quantifying recent KPI trends (with trend beacons) or tracking current KPI measures (with gauges and dials), require more advanced analysis. The bottom line is that with a quick "one pass" review of colored icons, the health of the business can be quickly assessed and proactively managed.

Figure 2: Icon Profiles

Next month, we will dive deeper into the CPM dashboard as we explore another important and critical graphic component - charts.

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