Month: August 2013

I’m speaking at SQL Saturday #190 in Denver

sqlsat190speakerI’m looking forward to speaking at SQL Saturday #190 in Denver, Colorado. This will be my 6th SQL Saturday at which I have spoken. It’s becoming a habit! The title of my session is The Accidental Report Designer: Data Visualization Best Practices in SSRS. Here is the description of my session:

Whether you are a DBA, a developer, or an analyst, there is a good chance that you will have to create reports for coworkers, company executives, or clients. As with any UI design, careful consideration should be given to your data visualization design to ensure you are effectively communicating the intended message and providing a good user experience. While the principles are applicable across reporting platforms and tools, this session will contain demos and examples implemented in Reporting Services using SQL Server Data Tools. Learn how to make information (not just data) the focus of your report and provide your audience with something better than just shiny!

I’m passionate about data visualization. Data professionals work so hard to gather, integrate, cleanse, aggregate, and deliver data to users. Creating a good report turns that data into actionable information, taking it the last mile. Consequences of bad report design range from failure to provide appropriate business insights to misleading users and causing them to draw incorrect conclusions. As much as I enjoy my job as a data professional, my job does not exist simply for my enjoyment. My goal is to create solutions that provide timely, accurate, usable information to ultimately help businesses cut costs or create new revenue. I’m missing the mark if I allow poor report design to jeopardize my efforts.

Report design is not just for BI professionals. Pretty much everyone (business users, data professionals, developers, managers) has to create a report at some point in their professional lives, whether it is built in Excel using static data or embedded in a web page using .NET and javascript. While there is no one true way to design a report, research (and some common sense) shows that some methods are more effective than others. I frequently encounter two common mistakes. In our strive to make things visually appealing, we often lose sight of the goal of effective communication of the appropriate information, opting for bling over business insight. On the flip side of that, many people default to a wide table full of hundreds of lines of data rather than spend the time to plan our graphs or charts to highlight the important trends and indicators.

When I began learning data visualization best practices, I felt like my eyes had been opened to a facet of my work that I had been unintentionally ignoring. I realized I had been making several common mistakes simply because I did not understand the user experience I was providing through my design choices. If you are a developer, it is important to realize that reports/dashboards/data visualizations require as much planning and thoughtfulness as any other user interface design. It is not enough to slap the graph on the page and move on.

Here are some online resources for those who would like to learn more about report design and data visualization best practices:

The One Book

I tend to get some variation of the following question as I present at SQL Saturdays and work with clients:

What is the one book I should read to gain a good understanding of this topic?

There are many great books out there on business intelligence, data warehousing, and the Microsoft BI stack.  Here is my list of those that had a significant impact on my learning and career or that I consider the current defining book on the subject.

Data Warehousing/Dimensional Modeling –  The Data Warehouse Toolkit by Ralph Kimball and Margy Ross (link is to the newest edition of the book) defines dimensional modeling, walks through many common data scenarios and explains recommended data modeling and ETL practices. If you are designing, building, or enhancing a dimensional data warehouse, please read this book.

Master Data ManagementMaster Data Management by David Loshin thoroughly explains the resources required, helps clarify goals, and discusses the challenges of implementing a master data management program in your organization. The book also discusses architecture options and provides a roadmap that you can adapt to your project. I actually did an independent study class based upon this book as part of my MBA. I would recommend it to anyone just getting into MDM as a great platform agnostic view of MDM.

Agile Data WarehousingAgile Data Warehousing Project Management: Business Intelligence Systems Using Scrum by Ralph Hughes is an enlightening read about applying the agile process to data warehousing by someone who understands both.  Use this book to help set expectations at the beginning of projects, estimate effort, decide what should be included in an iteration, and provide value early in your project.  It addresses DW enhancements as well as new DW projects.

SSISProfessional Microsoft SQL Server 2012 Integration Services contains great information whether you are just learning SSIS or you just need to understand the new features in 2012. It covers each task and data flow component, offers tips for performance tuning, and provides great examples.  If you haven’t moved up to SQL Server 2012 yet, you will want to learn about the project deployment model, environment variables, and project-level connection managers, which are all covered in this book.

SSAS TabularMicrosoft SQL Server 2012 Analysis Services: The BISM Tabular Model by Marco Russo, Alberto Ferrari, and Chris Webb
There aren’t that many books available on SSAS tabular models since it is fairly new. This one got me through a couple of projects as I learned tabular cubes and DAX.  You will read almost every page while building your first tabular cube.  Then you will return to find helpful tips on writing DAX calculations.

Data Visualization –  Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few (link is to the newest edition of the book)
This book is what got me interested in data visualization.  The way I design reports and dashboards changed after I read it. I was torn whether to go with this book or Show Me the Numbers, but I think Information Dashboard Design covers the main points of Show Me the Numbers that I most want people to understand (it was also the first of Few’s books that I read). Today’s technology enables us to make reports that are high on shiny and low on actionable information. I see two troubling trends: reports that are just wide tables with several hundred lines that no one can read at one time, and really shiny dashboards with lots of bells and whistles that make them look really cool. This book will tell you there is an appropriate time and place for tables and dashboards.  And while visual appeal is good, it should not be at the expense of effectively communicating the intended message of the information.

Up Next

I just picked up some books that look very promising and may cause me to update my list above:

 

Happy reading!