Business Intelligence & Cognitive Psychology

One of the most interesting session at the recent SQL Bits 7 was Jen Stirrup’s talk on use of charts in reporting services, partly because I am a failed graphic designer by training and partly the study I made of it for my MSc at the OU. 

What she has done is to explain the business of using charts to quickly and accurately inform the report consumer by building on the way we perceive visual information. Her drive for simple clean charts might fly in the face of fashion and all the fluff in a lot of the latest visual tools, but there’s no denying that the result is going to make this information more presentable.

The only disagreement we have is that I am a little more pro pie charts than she is.  I think humans are pretty good at telling the time from analogue watches and pilots rely heavily on dials to make quick decisions.  So I think Jen’s observations on clean design can be applied to pie charts and for example they should have only 3 or 4 pieces of pie which are clearly coloured.  Pie chats like this can also be very useful on  maps  or Visio diagrams and I have seen some example where the size of each pie varies by the total and the pies are centred on where the activity is occurring.  However you also have to watch out for clutter and confusion as too many pie charts might obscure the underlying map / diagram and overlap each other as well.

I also have to agree with Jen that all the shading and boxes that are turned on by default in the reporting services chart and map wizard can confuse and of course slow down report rendering if only marginally.

Anyway Jen’s session on this topic is pretty rare, most of the stuff on reporting services you’ll find on the web shows you how to design reports and use the tools.  I think more of this is needed so check out her blog or her session recording at SQL Bits 7 when it goes live.