During an upcoming free workshop, Andrej Lapajne will be going in depth on the benefits of using IBCS to improve your data visualization practices and communication. Here is a brief introduction to what IBCS is and how it is helping businesses across the world visualize their data effectively and consistently.
Are you using data visualization to improve your reports, presentations and communications, or to unknowingly hinder them? All too often, reports fall somewhere between messy spreadsheets and dashboards, full of poorly labeled and inappropriate charts, that simply do not get the message across to the decision-makers.
Countless reports and presentations are created throughout organizations on a daily basis, all in different formats, lengths, shapes and colors, depending on preferences of the person who prepares them. The end results are often managers not making their way through the data presented, time being wasted, and important decisions failing to be made.
The solution - International Business Communication Standards
In 2004 Dr. Rolf Hichert, the renowned German professor, took on a challenge to standardize the way data visualizers present data in their reports, dashboards and presentations. His extremely successful work culminated in 2013 with the public release of the International Business Communication Standards (IBCS) the world’s first practical proposal for the standardized design of business communication.
The IBCS consistently define shapes and colors of actuals and budgets, variances, different KPIs, etc. Often referred to as the “traffic signs for management”, the IBCS are a set of best practices that went viral in Europe and have solved business communication problems in numerous companies such as SAP, Bayer, Lufthansa, Philips, Coca-Cola Bottlers, Swiss Post, etc.
Profit & Loss analysis (income statement) with waterfall charts and variances
How does it work?
Let’s take a look at a typical column chart, designed to help us compare actual sales figures vs. budget:
Is it efficient? The colors used are completely arbitrary, probably just an accidental default of the software tool. It is quite hard to estimate the variances to budget. Are we above the budget or below the budget in a particular month? For how much?
Now let’s observe the same dataset, designed according to the IBCS:
The actuals are depicted as dark grey full columns, while the budget is an outline. This is called scenario coding: the budget is an empty frame that has to be filled up with the actuals.
The variances are explicitly calculated and visualized. Positive variance is green, negative is red. The user’s attention is guided to the variances, which are in this case the key element to understand the sales performance.
The values are explicitly labeled at the most appropriate position on the chart. All texts are standardized, exact, short and displayed horizontally.
Storyline, visual design and uniform notation
The IBCS standards are not just about charts. They comprise of an extensive set of rules and recommendations for the design of business communication that help:
- Organize and structure your content by using an appropriate storyline
- Present your content by using an appropriate visual design and
- Standardize the content by using a consistent, uniform notation.
After you apply the IBCS rules to your standard variance report, it will look something like this:
Sales variance report - Actual vs PY vs Budget
As you may have noticed, this report has several distinctive features:
- The key message (headline) at the top
- Title elements below the key message
- Clear structure of columns (first PY for previous year values, then AC for actual and at the end BU for budget; always in this order)
- Scenario markers below column headers (grey for PY, black for AC and outline for BU)
- Strictly no decorative elements, only a few horizontal lines
- Variances are visualized with red/green “plus-minus” charts and embedded into the table
- Absolute variances (ΔPY, ΔBU) are visualized as a bar chart, while relative variances (ΔPY%, ΔBU%) are visualized as “pin” charts (we prefer to call them “lollipop” charts)
- Semantic axis in charts: grey axis for variance to PY (grey = previous year), double line for variance to budget (outline = budget)
- Numbered explanatory comments that are integrated into the report.
A clear message, appropriate data visualization and accurate explanations. The story that numbers are telling presented on one single page. That's what the managers expect.
We will be going into much further detail on IBCS guidelines for visualizing data and business communications during a free workshop on Oct 29th at 10am. To learn more and register, please visit us at zebra.bi/dc2015.