Business Intelligence 101: Infographics

Another appropriate title for this blog would be, "Buying Myself More Time." I'm eager to share the results of my NFL 1-2 Punch analysis with you, but the latest discovery does need in-depth validation. A large number of NFL fans take the 1-2 scoring strategy as gospel, and I'd like to be quite certain of my results before I contradict them.

That certainty reminds me of a conversation with my friend Roland, a few years back. I was rattling off a list of Swedish rock bands, and included Golden Earring. Keep in mind, I love music trivia. I'm very confident in my music trivia knowledge. And for the better part of 30 years*, I was certain that Golden Earring was from Sweden. Roland, who's Dutch, informed me that no, Golden Earring is from The Netherlands. It took me a while to believe him, despite his rather obvious authority on the matter, simply because I had been so certain they were Swedish.**

Back to the subject at hand: infographics. I used the term "infographic" last week with a non-IT, non-corporate friend and was asked, "What exactly is that?"

Simply put, an infographic is a visual representation of data or information. Seems straightforward. Aren't you just trying to impress me by using a fancier word than "chart?"

Fig. 1: So, who was part of the band in 1997? 

Not exactly. Consider this differentiation: when you look at the visual, no matter what you call it, do you get a sense of overwhelming detail, or do you immediately get a feel for the overall picture?*** A good infographic should produce the latter. More detail on infographic functions in a moment.

I stumbled across a great example while checking some items for yesterday's blog on band compositions. Wikipedia has some excellent infographics showing membership in popular bands over time. Check out the two screen captures: the first gives a simple textual list of people who have been part of Styx. The second is a graphical timeline.

Fig. 2: Much easier to read, and actually provides some insight beyond simple membership.

Want to know who was in the band in 1978, 1997, or 2003? You'll probably answer those question far more quickly using the infographic. It also provides some immediate insights that you don't get easily from the text version. Apparently the band was inactive from 1984 through late 1990, and again from 1992 to 1995. And it prompts an interesting question: what was that brief stint in 1995? 

Those are the things a good infographic should or can do: first, give you a good feel for the overall picture. Second, provide a visual that helps commit the general picture to memory. Third, make it easy to answer basic. Fourth, call out significant insights, and finally, prompt questions that might be worth following up. And a good infographic should do these things more effectively than text or grid delivery.

If you're still with me, how about a little homework? Send me a link with an interesting infographic. If I receive a few of these, I'll follow up with another post to share people's favorites.

* 30 years is nothing compared to the astounding 48 year+ consistency of the band. George Kooymans and Rinus Gerritsen founded the band in 1961 and have stayed together the entire intervening time. The two other current members, Barry Hay and Caesar Zuidewijk, have been with them since the late 60s or early 70s. Freaking amazing. I see you guys aren't planning on any Texas visits, probably because of my transgression with the whole "they're Swedish" thing, so maybe I need to visit Oss in July. 

** I was right about ABBA, Europe, and Ace of Bass, at least.

*** In my opinion, this is one of the top flaws with business intelligence delivery. Report consumers love big scorecards with dozens of KPIs, but the report author should always consider time to action. When a consumer sits down to look at this report, how long does he or she need to determine the action to be taken?

**** This was a brief reunion, re-recording songs for a greatest hits album. They planned to tour as well, but unfortunately, John Panozzo was in bad health and passed away.