Know Your Audience

Know Your Audience

I found this post in an old folder that I never posted two years ago. But with a few changes, it is just as relevant today.

In my prior posts, I’ve focused on the technical issues of how to gather data into a Power BI Data Model, how to transform that data using calculated dimensions and measures, and how to display the data using the reporting and charting objects built into Power BI Desktop and even a few that are provided by third part tools. However, I need to discuss another important aspect of data analysis. That is determining the best way to present your analysis to different audience types.

The easiest way to classify audience types is by management levels. At the top level are the C-level executives. You might know them better as the CEO, CIO, CFO, COO, and probably several other TLAs (three letter acronyms) that represent the people that set the overall goals or direction of what your organization will be doing in the future. People at this level rely on well-designed charts to guide their decisions. This is not because they cannot interpret tables and matrices. Rather it is because they need to quickly grasp what the data is telling them and how it affects their decisions. This is best accomplished with charts often in the form of dashboards.

When a data analyst is asked to create a dashboard for their organization’s leaders, they may feel that they must somehow fit every piece of information into a single dashboard. But that would be the wrong approach. The correct approach is to first determine what decisions leadership is trying to make and then determine what specific information they need to make those decisions. Each dashboard should then be created to address the information needed to make a single decision. That decision might be to expand the organization in one part of the country while shutting down operations in another less profitable region. The decision might be to add new product/service lines or to decrease the number of similar offerings within a category that are competing against each other rather than against the competition. Or perhaps they need to evaluate difference source of raw materials or to determine where the best location for the new facility should be or maybe what type of advertising works best for different market segments. In any case, each dashboard must focus on a single issue and completely address that issue within the confines of that single dashboard if at all possible.

When it comes to Power BI, the dashboard capabilities exist to create compelling presentations that can be included in PowerPoint slides or displayed directly. The worse thing you can give managers at this level is a boring presentation that included tables and tables of numbers whose relevance to the decision is hard or even impossible to visualize. Each item on a dashboard may have the ability to drill down to a deeper level of detail, but rarely if ever will they need to drill down to the original data source level. It is always limited to summarized data.

Beneath this top level of management is typically a middle layer of management and staff who develop the strategy on how to achieve the goals and implement the decisions of top management. This level also benefits from similar dashboards with data that applies only to their area of concern. Interactivity in these dashboards to drill down and filter data is more important than that needed by top management but still should not rely heavily on table and matrix reports except as a backup to verify the analysis or to verify or explain outlier data. I would suggest that if management at this level regularly insists on getting full table and matrix reports of the data, they may not trust the summarized data prepared for them, or perhaps they just don’t know what the right questions are quite yet and still need to explore different data relationships. Some might refer to this activity as ‘playing with the data’ to determine which strategies make the most sense to achieve the overall organization goals. Keep in mind that once these strategies are finalized, the information defining what dimensions and measures are most important will be used to create the dashboard for top management to guide their decisions. The analysts at this level may be called the strategic data analysts because their focus is in determine what data is needed to support and define the organizations strategy.

Finally, there are what I call the functional data analysts. While they may work in part from a set of requests for data needed by the strategic data analysts, they also spend considerable time gathering as much data as possible and building different data models to test different assumptions. Often these assumptions are based on their general knowledge of the business/service, but sometimes it is just a ‘game’ of playing one set of dimensions against another set of dimensions to see if there is any relationship that best predicts the observed measures. A tool like Power BI makes it relatively easy to test different assumptions to see if a pattern emerges that might predict the measures. Sometimes the best relationships in the data are discovered quite by accident causing the data analyst to exclaim “That’s funny!” Then they will proceed to adjust the dimensions to fine-tune that factors that best model the observed measures. This is what often occurs in the study of customer demographic effects on purchasing of different products/services in different parts of the county. For the functional data analyst, charts are still important in discovering those special relationships, but the tables and matrices that back up those charts take on increasing importance to verify that the observed effect was not an accident.

Ultimately, the source data needed at each of these levels may actually be the same. However, to include all the detailed data in the data models provided to top level managers of the organization may result in analysis that is slow to update. Top management does need as much flexibility in filtering or drilling down through the data using different dimensions. The strategic managers and data analysts have already determined what dimensions they want top management to focus on and can provide dashboards based on summary data for those dimensions rather than detailed data.

Similarly, strategic managers and data analysts do not need all of the data collected by their functional peers. In fact, their function managers and data analysts should have already weeded out dimensions that do not have a direct impact on the observed measures. They have reduced the data model by removing non-essential columns such as a store’s phone number and perhaps even summarizing the data slightly perhaps by including only daily sales rather than each details on each individual sale.

Think about prices on the stock market for example. Looking at the second by second price fluctuations of a stock can be distracting to the decision on whether to buy or sell a particular stock. In fact, looking at the price trend first by hour, then by day, then by month, and finally by year can give you different decisions at each point along the way. If you are a day trader, you probably need to watch the fluctuations of a stock at a finer interval. But if you are long term investor, the decision on whether to buy a stock or sell it depends on its longer-term trend. Of course, whether you are buying or selling, once you have made that decision, you probably would best be served to watch daily fluctuations or even minute by minute changes to time the exact moment to initiate your trade order.

Getting back to a business scenario, we see that there are several trends in the style of data analysis that you may need to consider. Data analysis performed for higher management levels require that:

  • the data model must eliminate all irrelevant dimensions.
  • the data model must be increasingly summarized.
  • dashboards and individual charts should have less interactivity focusing only on relevant dimensions that affect the decision.
  • the presentation layer must become increasingly graphical with data presented at a high but focused level to drive home the point they need to make at a glance.
  • the need for tables and matrices decreases and can be distracting like the noise of second by second stock price fluctuations.
  • the presentation should focus on the one or two points it is trying to make without introducing side issues and should fit on a single screen/slide with no scrolling horizontally or vertically.
  • at the highest level, the presentation must stand on its own without support from the data analyst to explain it.

It should be obviously by now that all of these goals cannot be met with a single Data Model much less a single set of reports and dashboards. You must customize the Data Model and the presentation of the data for each audience level. Of course, one way to do this is to base each higher-level Data Model on the data model at a lower level. This method provides continuity. It also provides a single upgrade path as more recent data flows from the lowest and most detailed levels up to the highest and most summarized data levels.

Now one last point. This cannot be easily accomplished by using just the Power BI Desktop version. At the lowest analysis level, Power BI Desktop may be the best way to build the initial data models and ‘play’ with the possible relationships of different dimensions and measures. Depending on the amount of detailed data, this may even require the data to be stored in Analysis Services either locally or within Azure. Keep in mind that calculated columns and measures will update faster in Analysis Services than if stored in local data. But even then, some data analysts prefer to use a data sample in Power BI Desktop to get a ‘feel’ for the data and to explore different visualizations of the data. Only then will they build the final model in Analysis Services with Power BI or Power BI Premium.

While Azure with Power BI Premium might be where your organization ultimately needs to go, don’t be afraid to start small by using Power BI Desktop. Gain acceptance and recognition for what data analysis can provide at each audience level. Build confidence and complexity over time. But get started and do it. It is better to succeed through a series of smaller steps than to fail attempting to immediately implement your grand vision or even worse, to never start at all.

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What Use Are OneNote Tags?

What Use Are OneNote Tags?

To those of you who have wondered why there have been no new posts to this blog for many weeks, rest assured that I will be trying to get back on track again. It has been an eventful two years with many job changes that I will not go into here. However, from a technical point of view, I have also used that time to learn more about some of the features of O365 as well as Power BI, particularly related to ADA compliance issues and just overall better design methods for reports and dashboards. I’ll get to all of that eventually. However, first I wanted to tell you about a hidden gem in OneNote. Okay, maybe not hidden so much as underutilized, at least by most people. That hidden gem is tags within OneNote.

Although I have been using OneNote for several years, I have to admit that initially I did not think of tags as more than just decoration inside my OneNote pages. I’ve used the To Do square tag when making lists of things I needed to do. The cool thing about them was that when I first added them to an item in a list, the square would first appear as unchecked and by simply clicking on the square, I could toggle between unchecked, checked, and back again. I also would star important items in a page of notes to indicate the most important points so that I could find them easily enough 6 months (or even 6 weeks) later. The same thought applied to the Question Mark tag which I would use to mark thoughts where I needed to conduct more research or contact others about. I might have used a few other tags over the years, but I really did not think too much about them other than as a visual marker of where certain types of information appeared on a page.

I hadn’t even noticed that you could define your own custom tags, perhaps because I rarely scrolled all of the way to the bottom of the list of available tags. However, last year I discovered this feature. It was the first step on my path of using tags more productively. Let me first show you how easy it is to create a custom tag.

You begin by opening the tag list by clicking on the bottom box on the right side of the tag list which is commonly referred to as the More button. (The Tags group can be found in the Home ribbon of OneNote if you are having trouble finding it.)

Scrolling to the bottom of the list is the option: Custom Tags… Clicking on this option displays the Customize Tags dialog box shown below.

To create a new tag, click on the New Tag button as shown above to display the New Tag dialog.

The first thing you must supply is the Display name or the Tag name if you prefer. This name should be unique amongst the existing list of available tags. This is important because the symbols, font and highlight colors do not have to be unique among all the define tags.

After specifying a name, symbol, font color, and highlight color, click the OK bottom at the bottom the dialog. This action adds your new tag to the top of the list. It also gives it the keyboard shortcut: Ctrl_1. You can move the tags in the list to reflect the tags you use most to appear near the top of the list. You could also order the tags alphabetically, but that is not as practical. Why? Because the further down the list you have to look, the harder they are to find. Secondly, the first 9 tags are given shortcut keys (Ctrl+1 to Ctrl+9) beginning at the top of the list. Note however that the shortcut keys are not really a function of the tag, but of the tag’s position in the list. You can click on a tag in the Customize Tags dialog and then click on the up or down arrow keys to the right of the list to change the tag order. Notice that as you move a tag up or down, the shortcut key for that tag (as well as the one it jumped over) changes to keep the order of the shortcuts fixed from the top of the list.

You can see in the image below that the new tag I created with the name Link which began with the shortcut Ctrl+1 when it was first added was changed to Ctrl+2 when I moved it down to the second position in the list.

When you close the Customize Tags dialog by clicking the OK button, the tag order and the shortcut keys are set as shown in the Customize Tags dialog.

Now to use the tags, you can select the text in the notepad page and select the tag you want from the Tags list, or if the tag is one of the first nine tags from the top, you can use its shortcut key combination such as (Ctrl+2) for the Link tag. You don’t even have to select the text. If you select a tag, it will appear at the beginning of the current line for a single line note or at the beginning of the paragraph for a multi-line note. Even if the information you want to tag is in the middle of a line, the tag appears at the beginning of the line, not just to the left of the selected text. As an example of that, look at the image below in which I selected the site URL and then pressed Ctrl+2 from the keyboard to add the link tag.

Any line or paragraph can be tagged with any one or more of the available tags. If you have more than a single tag, they all appear to the left side of the text. After tagging items on your page, you should easily be able to spot the important information in any page your OneNote notebook.

For a long time, that is all I thought you could do with tags. But that does not showcase the real power of tags. To be fair, I guess the real power of tags does not become important until you have dozens of pages and subpages within multiple tabs within one or more notebooks, much like the notebooks in your office. Let’s say you have 50 to 100 pages of notes within a notebook perhaps representing different projects, different meetings, different notes, etc. How would be begin to find all of your To Do items or all of the links, or all of the phone numbers you have stored? One way of course would be to perform a search on a unique word, portion of a word or even a word phrase. In fact, Search allows you to find a unique string of characters across multiple pages in multiple tabs across multiple notebooks that you have open.

That is pretty powerful, but you must know the unique string you want to search for and there is no way to limit the search to perhaps just the pages within the current tab or to perform the search in such a way as to find all of the links or phone numbers at once. Furthermore, what if you do not remember a unique string or what if the string might appear in multiple places in different contexts? Or what if you wanted to find all the links in the current notebook? In these cases, Search may not be the right tool.

To the right of the tag dropdown list on the Home ribbon is an option called: Find Tags. When you click this option, a panel appears along the right side of the screen titled: Tags Summary which lists all of your tags grouped by tag name as a default (see why tag name is important?). An example of this panel is shown in the next image. To jump to the page for any of these tags, just click on the label associated with each tag in the Tags Summary panel. However, if you have used a large number of tags to tag a large number of items on multiple page and tabs within your notebook or notebooks, this list can be rather large (don’t worry, OneNote will automatically create a scrolling list) and you may want to click on the option at the bottom of this panel to create a summary page which adds another page to the notebook listing all the tags used within the notebook. Unfortunately, you cannot click on the labels associated with the tags here to go to the page where the tag was defined like you can when you click within the Tags Summary panel. But all is not lost. If you hover of any of the tags in this summary list, you will see a small OneNote icon to the left of the entry. Simply slide your cursor over and click on this icon to go to the page referenced page.

Now if you notebook is as active as mine is, the Summary Page of tags will soon become obsolete as you add more content and tags it. You might have noticed the other button at the bottom of Tags Summary panel that says: Refresh Results. You could click on this button. However, beware that if you created a Summary Page, the tags found here will be repeated resulting in many repeated tag references. Not good! If you want to refresh results, you need to first delete the existing Summary Page, click Refresh Results, and then create a new Summary Page.

Another way you can limit the size of the Tags Summary details is to use the Search option found just above the Refresh Results button. This option lets you select the scope of the summary from a page group up through all the notebooks you have open (The default is the current notebook). You can also specify which tags to display based on their age from today’s tags to yesterday’s tags, this week’s tags, last week’s tags, or older tags.

Before I end this blog post, let me give you one last hint on using tags. Suppose you have a notebook with hundreds of individual subpages, pages, and tabs. How can you find the page you want if you know the name of the page but not under which tab it can be found? Why not use a tag to tag the page names themselves. Then when you create a, the section of the summary for that special tag that you use only for page names will create a Table of Tag Summary Contents list with the pages listed alphabetically. Just find the page you want and click on the page name to go to that page.

And if you like generating a Table of Contents of your pages within OneNote, think about creating a Table of References, a Table of Definitions, a Contact List, etc. There is no limit to the imaginative ways you can use tags to organize your OneNotes.