The system that keeps Power BI visuals from being great (and how to beat it)

Have you heard the saying “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”?

This is actually a cognitive bias concept that is about over-reliance on whatever tool is on hand.

It also reminds me of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “If I Had a Hammer”:

Or maybe Queen is more your speed?

In short, this saying came from a speech given in 1962 at a education research conference by a professor of philosophy, Abraham Kaplan. He was talking about how scientists had (have?) the habit of formulating problems in a way that solving them requires only the skills they already have.

“We tend to formulate our problems in such a way as to make it seem that the solutions to those problems demand precisely what we already happen to have at hand.”

Abraham Kaplan, 1964

Warren Buffet also referenced this saying 40 years ago when complaining about financial data analysis that was kinda useless:

…it’s simply that the data are there and academicians have worked hard to learn the mathematical skills needed to manipulate them. Once these skills are acquired, it seems sinful not to use them, even if the usage has no utility or negative utility….

Warren Buffett, 1984

So both of these old white guys are basically talking about what I’ll (and probably others) call “tool bias”. If someone (or a group of people) know a certain set of things, the tendency is to use only those things to solve problems. Not that they can’t learn new things, only that inertia and momentum plots them along a certain path, and it’s hard to deviate from that path.

A variation of this concept is *everywhere*. If something seems really hard to change (ie. how an org does things, how systemic racism is everywhere, even though most of us know it’s horrible, etc) it’s because things are systemically hardwired that way.

The system tries to keep you in a box.

What’s this have to do with data visualization and dashboards and Power BI?

I’m glad you asked.

If you’ve followed me for a while (and/or subscribed to this newsletter for a while) you know I’m constantly frustrated by the state of data dashboards. They are ugly, user-UNfriendly, and throw too much data at viewers at once. It’s like most of the people who design these things have NO experience or training in User Experience.

Here are some of the horrible examples that came up when I googled “show me great Power BI dashboards”. NONE of these are great, and while this is just a few.. ALL the results were horrible.

Almost every dashboard out there has TOO MUCH data, hitting viewers all at once, put into horrible looking charts that are hard to digest.

Why, for the love of everything good in the universe, WHY?

I’ve been wondering WHY there are such bad dashboard / chart designs out there, and specifically with Power BI (although this problem is not software-specific). Why do default Power BI charts look awful? Why are they designed by Microsoft the way they are? Why are formatting options so awful and limited? Why do so many dashboards CRAM a ton of info into every page and every chart?

Why does making a user-friendly dashboard take a TON of knowledge and time?

It’s because of a system. This system is called the International Business Communication System, or “IBCS” and if you spend any time in the Power BI sphere, you start seeing everyone talking about it. It’s what the people behind Power BI’s charts use when they are adding features to Power BI and making new versions of chart types.

The IBCS is why formatting options are SO limiting in Power BI… because the IBCS says “this is they way charts should be made” and Power BI is developed with that narrow (and incorrect) ruleset in mind. The IBCS is being used by Power BI as their ONLY tool to guide visual development and updates.

That’s a HUGE problem. We can’t format charts as much as we want to to get them as user-friendly as they should be (but, hey, it’s also why I’m known for hacking my way around these limitations) because the ICBS says “charts need to look this ONE way”.

You may have already guessed it, but the “International Business Communication System” is HORRIBLE at the only important concept in their acronym: Communication.

Blame Capitalism

This system was NOT designed so people could easily understand charts. This system was designed so the business community could have some kind of standardization… so everyone would HAVE to look at the same boring, confusing, awful charts.

The IBCS website says things like (and has videos about) “Imagine if every music composer documented their music with *different* notation! Imagine if every architect used their own *individual* system for creating building blueprints. We wouldn’t be able to have musicians play music that wasn’t their own, or we wouldn’t be able to build buildings… we at IBCS bring this same standardized system to data visualization.” (I’m paraphrasing here, but not much.)

Now all this SOUNDS good, but it’s completely missing the point.

A musician writing down their music the same way as other musicians or an architect drawing up a blueprint in a standardized way is NOT the same as data visualization. These analogies apply to capturing and documenting data, so that everyone knows what the data means and how to interpret it, but data visualization is the creative phase of the data life cycle.

Data visualization is when a chart or dashboard designer takes the data and then takes information about the context it’s being used in and applies it to the visual. What does a chart or dashboard audience need from the data? What goals are trying to be achieved by that audience? This is DIFFERENT for every organization, every dataset, every audience.

If we applied the logic of IBCS to music and architecture, every version of a song would sound exactly the same. Every building would be built exactly the same. No creativity. No consideration of context.

Context is EVERYTHING. Everything fails without context.

Blame Capitalism some more

It’s the “Business” in the IBCS acronym that is causing this. The desire to have everything fit into nice little boxes so it can be measured and commodified and made efficient.

While the IBCS documents and templates say things like “keep chart clutter to a minimum” and “label data points” (both good recommendations), in practice and in their visual templates, their chart “examples” are the stuff of nightmares (and Power BI is adding features to charts to pursue these IBCS standards).

Here’s an example that gets “praise” (NOT from me) in Power BI forums and posts:

This is probably the most uncluttered “IBCS” chart I’ve seen, and it’s still freaking horrible.

Here’s a list of issues from this column chart from a 2 second glance:

  • The title sucks
  • The legend is barely a legend. There’s 4 colors in this chart (+ white) and the legend explains 2 of them, with mysterious acronyms.
  • There are 3 data points in each column, so you’ve tripled the mental work your viewers have to do
  • Red and green, for positive and negative, are the only colors really recommended in the IBCS, which is not accessible at all for anyone with red-green color blindness.
  • There’s not explanation of what green and red mean (which, if you HAVE to use red/green, is essential for your colorblind viewers along with directly labelling a color with what it means.
  • The red/green bars don’t even have standardized placement. Sometimes on the left of columns, sometimes on the right?

I WISH I could say this was the worst example, but it’s not. Here are 3 of their “templates” they offer to “guide” data visualization professionals, all from the Templates section of their website:

The IBCS standards advocate for putting MORE data points into visuals (Power BI has been adding features to do this for the last few months) in the interest of “showing more data” and at the same time obviously disregarding every User Experience recommendation out there (Basically, don’t drown your users in data. Give them a sample, and let them choose to see more)

Know thy Enemy

This is what you’re up against if you want to design user-friendly Power BI reports that are easy, digestible, and effective. The system wants NONE of these things. The system wants reports made in a standardized and ugly way.

This is where we beat the system.

Knowing that these IBCS standards (and Power BI by extension) is NOT being designed for people (but for business) is our advantage.

While most Power BI designers are going to lean on the IBCS “standards” as the only tool in their toolbox (see our discussion about hammers above) and say “oh, IBCS says to design it this way…”, those of us who are paying attention know that it’s PEOPLE at businesses (but also hospitals, and school boards, and foundations, and non-profits, etc.) that USE the reports.

If your report is designed to “communicate” to a business, it’s gonna fail and go unused.

If your report is designed to communicate to PEOPLE, those people are gonna love it.

Know the system you’re up against, so you can actively work around it.