The Pretty Chart Dilemma

Whenever a client says, “We just need the charts to be pretty”, I pause and weigh my response. While clearly placing some value on the user experience with their comment, they clearly miss the point of information design and effective data visualization. My dilemma then becomes, what’s the right response to this statement?

To be clear I’m not rehashing the data visualization aesthetics debate, but wrestling with how to win over product leadership on how to implement data applications the right way, i.e. functional vs. pretty.  When I’m working on a project It's all about delivering a functional design supporting an existing workflow that leads users to a set of results they can act on.  Pretty can’t do that.

The tide has definitely turned.  Product leadership recognizes they must deliver well-designed data applications to customers.  However, even though there are dashboard UI user stories in everyone's upcoming sprints, it’s still treated as something that happens to the display (colors, fonts and charts) and not between the display and the user (insights, actions and to-do lists).  My fear is that when mediocre designs gets implemented and results are mixed, design budgets will only be further cut in the future.  Without a design that gets users to take action and drive improved results, subscription attrition, tepid customer survey responses and low adoption will continue to be the norm.

So, how should we engage with people when they disproportionately place value on pretty?

First, it's important to recognize the pretty chart dilemma in all its manifestations.   It can appear as variations of the following:

  • “The charts need to look better so users will use it."

  • “Make sure the dashboard uses approved company branded colors."

  • “They just need to be prettier than today’s version."

  • “The charts should “pop” for the user."

  • “Can we do a Sankey chart?"

Here’s one of my favorite examples of pretty over functional.  Note the icon relaxing in the upper right corner.  Is the call to action for Vacation Days Utilization ever to take a nap?

Necto Dashboard .png

Here’s how I’ve learned to tackle the pretty chart dilemma.

Address Comments Right Away

The best way to deal with the pretty chart dilemma is to address it immediately when it arises.  Whether that’s during the selling process or mid-project, there’s no better time than the present.  One phrase I’ve repeated several times is, “we don’t focus on pretty, we’re implementing effective.”  I will also emphasize that the changes and design were implementing are intended to impact metrics or goals such as utilization, improved feedback or user attrition. 

Change the Vocabulary

It's also important to have everyone on the team continually use “non-pretty” language with the client. Eventually, they will ask questions or just start mimicking you.  Here are the words and phrases I use and those that I try to avoid.

Encouraged Vocabulary          Discouraged Vocabulary

Useful                                         Good-looking

Distinct                                        Pretty

Well-labeled                              Attractive

Clear Call to Action                    Eye-pleasing

Functional                                  Beautiful

Engaging                                    Cool

Yes, I am avoiding actionable these days as it makes me feel the same way when I hear synergy.

Highlight the Process

Be sure to highlight and emphasize the design process and your principles at work throughout the implementation.   Don’t hide the science or methodology at work during your design phases from the client. Be sure to lead with it.  Also, demonstrate how information design works well with Agile Development.  Often times the Pretty Chart Dilemma arises when product owners are squeezed for time and want to reduce the number of points given to a UX user story in an upcoming sprint.  

Focus on Users not Charts

Often times the dilemma is the result of the product team having the wrong perspective.  They're focused on features, sprint completion and their own preferences vs. those of their users.  This is pretty natural. Don’t be hesitant to ask questions like, “Would a user value this chart type or color palette over a clear call to action?” Consider the Juice Dashboard White paper of 10 years ago as a resource to help with language or audience focus.  Note the white paper title.   Tts not about pretty or beautiful, but designing dashboards that people (users) love

Still not sure how to talk to clients about the Pretty Chart Dilemma?  

Visit the Juice Analytics resource page.  Feel free to use and share the content provided with clients and team to deal with the dilemma, while giving us the proper attribution of course.   Need a more hands on approach then schedule a session to talk through the best approach to handling your specific dilemma.