Visualizations are probably the most effective way to convey information, insights and prompts for action to humans. We are not terribly good at quickly and correctly interpreting textual information that require sequential processing. Our brains however are very well equipped to rapidly interpret information presented in a well defined visualization. The expression ‘one picture says more than a thousand words’ is one that speaks volumes (and a picture capturing that expression would of course tell us even more…).
Visualizations were omnipresent at last week’s Oracle OpenWorld 2015 conference. From keynote sessions by Larry Ellison and Thomas Kurian to the demo grounds where SaaS applications as well as development tools, PaaS services and other products were demonstrated, visualizations were everywhere. In part because they look nice and have an immediate appeal. But far more than just eye candy, visualizations are truly very effective in many use cases – especially when rapid responses to real time findings are required or where decisions need to be made based on deep insight in trends, patterns, correlations and underlying causes.
Glance, Scan, Commit
At the heart of Oracle’s strategic design philosophy for [cloud] user experience is the ‘glance, scan, commit’ way of working we humans tend to adopt. We scan our surroundings for things that stand out in some way and therefore may require more attention. The things that attracted attention on our first scan are then glanced at – to better understand what makes them stand out, quickly interpret if action is indeed required (such as more in depth investigations, decisions or execution of a workflow or business process). Some things can perhaps be done on the fly (accept/reject, send left or right, acknowledge) and are immediately removed from the to-do list. For others we may determine that nothing further needs to be done. Then there are more involved tasks that are the end result of the scan and glance stages. These tasks form a to do list of things that we need to work on – commit ourselves to – either instantaneously or at a later moment. (see Strategic design philosophy pushes Oracle cloud user experience to lofty new heights by Kathy Miedema for more details on this philosophy).
Glance, Scan and Commit are implemented throughout Oracle’s SaaS applications. Users typically start from an initial dashboard that provides them the information they need to perform the Glance. This is typically information that is the outcome of aggregations and advanced data analysis – resulting in condensed reports of those facts that the user needs to be aware of, needs to react to or decide upon. This information should be presented in such as way that the ‘cost of understanding is minimized’ – as Jairam Ramanathan, Senior Development Manager for Data Visualizations at Oracle Cloud and Mobility Development Tools puts it.
Usually this means that the presentation shows a recent change or trend, a comparison with a threshold, deadline or other target or a list of action items. Data Visualizations are used to present these elements in a way that makes them easy to interpret quickly and correctly. Compared with a purely textual representation, most visualizations can easily add context – such as time or location – and categorizations or grouping. Visualizations can leverage special traits of our human minds. These include our ability to quickly interpret, compare and spot differences in position, shape and size, color (to some extent) and extract a story from animation. Our brain’s associative powers quickly come into play with visualizations.
Jeremy Ashley, GVP Cloud Applications UX at Oracle and responsible for the Glance, Scan, Commit philosophy, stresses that visualizations may not be too simplistic, or our brain simply zooms out. A visualization needs to hold a certain challenge in order to pique our curiosity.
Visualizations not only cater for the glance phase, they can usually also play an important role in the scan phase. Visualizations can allow drill down, to analyze a little further and look in more details into specific areas of interest indicated during glance. Additionally, visualizations may go beyond just presenting the data and also support simple manipulation of data – for example adjusting a gauge or dragging elements on a time line or even a bubble chart.
Consistency in Visualization
Both Jeremy and Jairam mention that consistency in the design of visualizations in an enterprise is important. Visual clues are very powerful to human brains. It is important therefore to use the same visual clues for the same type of information. When we assign a certain meaning to a color or shape in one situation, we should not have that meaning represented by a different color in another situation. The same with axis-orientation, use of shapes and fonts. Similarly, the same visualization – progress indicator, arrow gauge, tree map, doughnut chart – should be used for presenting a certain type of information across the user experience. It is not efficient – to use just one term for it – to represent the same information in different ways. That would definitely increase the cost of understanding and the risk of misinterpretation (as well as alienating the end user).
New Visualization Functionality
The session “Creating Stunning, Mobile-First User Interfaces with Oracle Data Visualizations” by Jairam together with Hugh Zhang and Katia Obradovic-Sarkic, showed off the current (and soon to be) state of data visualizations. Some of the visualizations that were new to me, include (note: some visualizations were already available in MAF and have now been added to ADF Faces as well (see this article for more details); it seems that JET has or will have the superset of all visualizations):
- Polar (see the example in the figure of a 3D bubble chart (color, size, position from center) presented against a single coordinate instead of X and Y)
- Donut chart
- NBox (introduced in ADF Faces 184.108.40.206 and 12.2.1)
Also added in ADF 12.2.1: Custom Area Layers in Thematic maps, a new chart design time in JDeveloper with a dynamic chart sample, design time support for Diagram and NBox.
Visualizations in JET that are not currently available in ADF Faces include the Range Chart, Stock and Tag Cloud.