5 rules of effective data visualisation

5 rules of effective data visualisation


Presenting data in a way that your audience can grasp quickly supports better decision-making. A new CGMA briefing, developed in partnership with KPMG, describes how.

One way finance professionals can improve the quality of decision-making in their organisation is to ensure they present management information in a way which is quick and easy for non-finance colleagues to absorb. An accessible representation enables colleagues to react to the situation and take the appropriate action swiftly.

Representing data and information in a pictorial or graphical format is one way of achieving this, and cloud-based technologies are making this easier to achieve.

Tools such as Microsoft Power BI, Tableau, and Qlik connect to big data sources, including unstructured data, and can look for data patterns and provide insights. Such tools can be owned and managed by the finance department.

The briefing, Report Visualisation: From Concept to Deployment, outlines the principles of effective report visualisation.

  • Ensure data is optimised. For effective decisions to be made and to drive business performance, the information presented must be based on the right indicators. When deciding on the most appropriate way to present your data, ask yourself: What is the end goal? What message are you trying to convey? With that as your guide, consider the metrics you need to include in the report to achieve that, and the most relevant sources from which to take that data.

  • Select a visualisation tool your audience will feels comfortable with. Options include dashboards, line charts, mapping charts, and bar or pie charts. Bridges, also known as waterfall charts, are well-suited to depict variance analysis as the steps in the bridge are to scale, so the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the most significant movements first. Dashboards can display the key drivers of a particular business area, providing a useful summary of performance. Mapping charts offer an effective way to illustrate performance in several markets or regions. Remember that less is more – the more information you try to add, the greater the danger that your message will be lost.

  • Consider the layout. The positioning, colours, and scaling of the visualisation tool you choose are important aspects. Opt for clean, sharp contrasting colours. Place your key message in the top left-hand corner of the page or screen, as this is the area the reader notices first. The colour scheme you decide on should be applied consistently. For example, if you (and your team) generally use red to depict an adverse variance, do not confuse the viewer by using it to represent a favourable one in your next report. Likewise, use the same colour to depict a client, product, or service line throughout the report.

  • Optimise the user experience. Engaging with the report’s end user is essential to ensure your message is conveyed effectively. Will they view your report in print, or on a touch screen computer or tablet? Options to consider to enhance their experience include personalised reporting, navigation, and interactivity. You may wish to create the same report in several styles to ensure the information is absorbed by all of the stakeholders.

  • Adapt the visualisation to the delivery channel. There is a big difference between viewing something on a mobile phone screen and on a laptop or PC, or in print versus electronic format, and the design needs to be adapted accordingly. For example, if a report is to be viewed online, providing drill-down and filter options can accommodate different screen sizes.

The data visualisation tools available are constantly improving as the technology evolves. Making the best use of them to convey management information is a core skill for finance professionals, and will remain so in the near future.