All posts by Sven

Cross Platform Reporting Notation

By | Information Design | No Comments

Background

The idea of applying a notation to reporting has been made popular by Hichert. Meanwhile this work has been handed over to International Business Communication Standards or IBCS. There are several specific tools available to produce IBCS-conformant charts and tables such as Hi-Charts. Although these are very fine products for their purpose they strongly adhere to the IBCS standard and at least currently are

  • only available on Windows and Microsoft Office (no Mac, no iOS)
  • only adjustable in limited ways such as colors and font size, but not the layout of the charts or even the font itself

In my workplace I needed a solution which is available on more platforms, namely Windows, Mac and iOS. Following this requirement was the ability to adjust certain design elements such as fonts to work consistently across these platforms.

This post is my personal attempt for implementation with the aim to make it work on various platforms (Windows, Mac, iOS) and to allow team members with a lower affinity towards presentation and reporting a lower barrier of entry. The solution is based on Microsoft Office which is available on the required platforms and especially on iOS has made huge progress since the CEO Satya Nadella took over.

But why should someone introduce a reporting notation anyway?

Introduction

Professionals in music, geography and engineering have long used notational standards to exchange and share their work. In business communication, however, there are often not even standards established or applied.

The International Standardisation Organisation (ISO) defines the benefits of standards as follows:

"International Standards bring technological, economic and societal benefits. They help to harmonize technical specifications of products and services making industry more efficient and breaking down barriers to international trade. Conformity to International Standards helps reassure consumers that products are safe, efficient and good for the environment."

− ISO

Assuming that well informed managers make better decisions, business communication should strive for transparency. Transparency means that correct, full and understandable information at the right time from reliable sources are provided. The introduction of notation standards increases transparency in two ways: comprehensibility and credibility:

Comprehensibility

Notation standards enhance comprehensibility of reports and presentations by introducing rules for their conceptual and visual design. Reports are easier to understand, if

  • they convey a clear message
  • they are clearly structured
  • objects meaning the same also look the same
  • high information density better reveals relationships

Credibility

The application of notation standards increases credibility of reports and presentations. Decisions are easier made when trusted that no information is missing or presented in a misleading way.

Other benefits

Next to contributions to transparency the introduction of notation standards has further benefits. The following matrix shows the process of decision support in columns while the rows detail the expected benefits.

Data Delivery & Systems Analysis & Message Evaluation & Decision
Quality 1 2 3
Speed 4 5 6
Cost 7 8 9

Data delivery and systems

This phase deals not only with the delivery of correct, timely and relevant data but also with provisioning of suitable systems for analysis and reporting.

Analysis and message

During this phase data is analysed with the target of gaining a clear view on the business situation. . Result of this stage are reports and presentations.

Evaluation and decision

In this final phase managers make decisions based on their evaluation of the message conveyed in said reports and presentations.

In these individual stages three main benefits are to be gained when introducing a notation standard in business communication:

1. Better quality

The quality of results in all three phases is going to increase. This stems from easier to understand reports and presentations and will ultimately lead to better decisions.

2. Shorter reaction time

The duration of the decision process will shorten. Thanks to templates reports will be produced and the messages to convey will be derived more quickly.

3. Reduced costs

The amount of time to compile information, analyse data and produce reports and presentations will reduce significantly and thereby reduce associated costs. The biggest advantage though will be the time saved by managers as they will be enabled to understand reports and presentations more quickly.

Objectives

This aims to define standards for the notation of a virtual reporting process in order to gain above stated benefits for internal and external participants in decision making an various platforms.

  • Create a visual language that synthesizes classic principles of good design aligned with standard tools already employed in a lot of companies in the reporting process thus avoiding additional cost and complexity
  • Develop a single underlying system that allows for a unified experience across end products
  • Forgo additional complexity by avoiding introduction of special software or even fonts

Principles

Minimalism

Minimalism aims for simplicity and objectivity. Its aim is to reduce to the fundamental, the essential and to strip away the ornamental layers . The content has priority, everything else has to support the message. The aim is to achieve „more with less“. This is anything but simple to achieve as there is no hiding behind decoration. It also means the existing elements grids, typography, space, imagery and color need to be applied more skillfully than ever.
They create hierarchy, meaning, and focus. Deliberate color choices, edge-to-edge imagery, appropriate typography and intentional white space create an interface that immerse the user in the experience and provides waypoints for the user.

Respect

Successful communication is depending on awareness of the audience. Reporting as part of communication also has to be tailored to the recipients. The notation described in this document is one element to avoid potential misconceptions and reduce friction in communication.

Notation

Notation is used to communicate faster in a clear way. Notation **standards** describe commonly used ways how to describe certain things, i.e. how to report.
In this context notation standards for value and volume numbers in business communication could be seen as a systematic approach for data visualization or Information Design.

Notation of meaning

The same content should be visualized the same way. Reversely, what looks the same should also mean the same. This aspect comprises the meaning of terms (words, abbreviations and numbers), measures, scenarios, timelines and structures as well as comparisons and variances.
Items with this meaning should be notated in a unified way in order to make the content as easy to understand.

Design of components

Design in this context means layout, structure and display of all components. Components comprise

  • Communication products (reports, presentations, statistics)
  • Pages
  • Objects (charts and tables)
  • Object elements (axis, title, columns)
  • General elements
  • Titles
  • Messages
  • Footnotes

Generally a page consists of elements and objects. All of these should be subject to a notation standard in order to maximise comprehensibility.

Simplified Reporting Notation Standard

Colours and Typeface

 

Branding Page 1080x1470

The colors are just meant as an example. They are bold enough and carry sufficient contrast to be distinguished also on older projectors. The font Calibri was chosen as it is pre-installed on Windows and Mac machines and is available in MS Office on iOS. It looks relatively contemporary and avoids the hassle of installing separate typefaces on various computers.

Data Types

In business reporting most of the dimensions for comparison will be Actual, Budget, Forecast and Last Year. The notation is visualised below:

Slice Data Types

One exception to the rule is Forecast, which should mostly be notated as shown in the B/W column with the respective colour. Only when Forecast dimension is to be shown in parallel to Actual should the “Colour” column be applied. If you are interested in the source Sketch files, you can download them here.

Application

This section provides examples based on the concept described above

Charts

A presentation slide containing message and chart is visualised below:

Example_Chart
The slide makes use of the notation by

  • putting the message to the top left where the attention level is the highest
  • applying coded colours for the chart for each data type
  • leading the reader in time from left to right
  • increasing information density by adding absolute and relative variances
  • avoiding noise and unnecessary clutter

Difference to the outlined IBCS standard is a separate bar for each dimension instead of overlays. I prefer this as it avoids overlaying values on top or next to the bar charts. Plus it does not require sophisticated Excel skills to put this together. If you are interested, the download link is here.

Tables

Tables should include graphical elements to visualise variances and clearly highlight data types. An example for monthly and cumulative comparisons to budget looks as follows:

Tables

As stated above, this is very much based on existing work, but to me feels less fidly by using more of the basic MS Excel functionality. The source Excel file can be downloaded here.

Conclusion

In my opinion this to be a more practical approach if the requirement is to

  • support multiple platforms
  • take into consideration that the average office worker is not necessarily able to make changes to standardized software packages rendering the charts
  • to be able to adapt layout and design on your own

Please tell me what you think in the comments.

Ulysses for iPad

By | Productivity | No Comments

Ulysses for Mac has added a lot of functionality for writers into their app over the last 2 years which made it more and more interesting. Meanwhile Ulysses is to text what Adobe Lightroom is for photos. It covers the whole process from entering text (without the hassle of a file system), intelligently allows for tags and smart folders and – where most other editors fail – offers solutions for output. Ulysses has always been about writing and organizing. However, so far there was no IOS counterpart.

That has now changed as Ulysses for iPad is out now. And boy, does it deliver. This is not a companion app to just sync characters. You can see that this app was developed with the intention to bring the full Mac experience to the iPad. It does not just sync your text, but also you folder structure, embedded images and even themes.

Ulysses-iCloud

Once done composing your text a lot of other IOS text editors rely on external tools to output. I have not seen an IOS editor capable of exporting to HTML, ePub, PDF, .md and RTF. Plus the ability to apply themes to each of these.

Themes are another topic where Ulysses shines. Not only can you choose from some nice preinstalled templates, there is also Style Exchange which allows for downloading customer made themes – even on IOS. Creating themes, however, is only possible on the Mac version but I believe this to be a minor issue for most users. Style Exchange will be a higher priority for the masses.

Some drawbacks

As its philiosophy is to put away with file management Ulysses heavily relies on iCloud which is not for everyone. The Mac app does support external files (such as Dropbox) but this meant loosing some Ulysses features such as embedded images and tags. On IOS the ‚external files‘ functionality is provided, but unfortunately the IOS Dropbox app does not function properly even when switched on as data provider under IOS:

Ulysses-External

This does work in the Mac app as it simply accesses the local Dropbox folder. If you have your text management setup like many others involving a Dropbox folder combined with Nvalt and various IOS editors you are out of luck for the moment.

The second issue I have is that despite all the fantastic export and theming options it does not support exporting directly to a blog. Yes, it is of course possible to copy the HTML and do it manually. It just seems odd that the process oriented approach of Ulysses ends with a manual step.

Praise

Writing on the iPad is more fun with Ulysses. It removes friction and is a complete writing environment. If you do not want to fiddle, to handle a file system and only concentrate on your words Ulysses might just be the tool you have been waiting for.

Omnifocus versus Todoist

By | Productivity | 5 Comments

I really tried. I wanted to give Todoist, a rapidly growing platform for task management, a serious try. As a serious Omnifocus user. It didn’t work.

Why on earth would an invested Omnifocus user switch to Todoist?

Well, in short because of

  1. Sharing
    Todoist let’s me easily share tasks with my wife related to managing our private life with two kids. Omnifocus is showing no signs to develop in this direction.
  2. Tags & Filters
    Context in Omnifocus only provides one dimension (although nested). Tags in Todoist allows me to build any (multidimensional) view on my tasks no matter how far I take tags. I am aware that if you standardise the naming of your tasks you can include a respective search in your Omnifocus Perspective – but that seems very fiddly to me.
  3. Speed
    Todoist syncs nearly instantaneously. With Omnifocus I always have to wait a few seconds before things are updated. And yes, I have background sync enabled in Omnifocus.
  4. Attachments
    It’s probably me but I always hesitated to put attachments in my Omnifocus database because I feared it would make it slow down or consume too much space. Todoist as a web based platform at least to me seems much better suited to handle bigger file attachments.

So I gave Todoist a serious try. I switched all my projects over, set up my wife with an account and tested the pro features for about a month (without Pro features it is very bare bones). I did the full monty: Exchanged my today widget on the iPhone, installed Todoist on all my Macs and IOS devices, even hooked it up to IFTTT and switched to Cloudmagic on my IOS devices to be able to process email directly into Todoist.

I also faced a stressful period at work where a lot of projects were getting pretty intense at the same time – perfect conditions to test drive a task management system. To put things into context – I overlook approx. 30 active projects at a time in a company with north of 500 staff. From experience I know I should maintain a good handle on my projects when things are getting hot. Otherwise it all falls apart pretty quickly and I loose control.

And this is exactly the point where Todoist broke down for me. It took me too long to update lots of tasks in lots of projects multiple times a day. I missed Omnifocus’ start dates, sequential projects and focussing abilities which allow me to filter better on what is really available, important and urgent at the same time.

I tried to accomplish this by setting up various filters. But no matter what I did – I always felt overwhelmed as I had to look at too many unrelevant tasks at the same time. I started fiddling again with filters – exactly what I wanted to avoid especially during a period where all of my resources were required to actually DO things.

It is not about price. Omnifocus on Mac, Ipad and Iphone add up quite nicely in (one-time) cost. Todoist is 23 Euro per year per person for the premium plan – for my wife and myself this translates to about three years of usage before I hit the Omnifocus price range. I am happy to pay for a solution which I use on a daily basis in order to manage my various roles.

In short, I learned that the following features in Todoist are essential for me before even consider switching again:

  • Start dates
  • Automatic ‘next action’ available per project
  • Better filtering in the UI, not only by filters

For Omnifocus I would like to see:

  • Task sharing
  • Tags
  • Faster sync

I would like to hope that Todoist adds these features, but I doubt they will be doing so anytime soon. For the time being Omnifocus just has to be my sort of hammer for the type of work I do.

Cloudsafe is closing down

By | Cloud | No Comments

I was sad to read that the cloud storage provider CloudSafe is closing down end of October. I liked the idea of privacy and security first approach Cloudsafe took. Secondly, the storage was hosted in Germany where I at least assume that privacy is still of a higher importance compared to other countries.

The founder wrote an email to customers today arguing that they were not able to convince enough users to opt for the paid tier. Most users would still value price per GB more than implemented security features so that scaling decides about the success of a platform. Obviously the dominating big players in this area such as Google, Dropbox, Amazon and perhaps soon Apple (all US) are in a much better position to pull this off.

I personally wish the team all the best and hope they will be able to make use of their ideas in other areas.

Omnifocus 2 for Mac

By | Productivity | No Comments

Finally! The Omni Group has released Omnifocus 2 for Mac, its high profile task manager. After an initially halted beta test the Omni folks started seeding updated versions and announced a shipment in June. Now it shipped end of May – Horray !

In my day job I oversee quite a few people each dealing with lots of projects, juggle my own ones, manage my colleagues, sit in (too) many meetings and try to make sure nothing falls between the cracks. Beside work I try my best to raise two boys together with my lovely wife which involves a lot of tiny things to remember as well.

Omnifocus is my weapon of choice to pull all of this off and it has saved my bacon quite a few times. I read David Allen’s book and I totally get it. It helps me to dump everything into Omnifocus which in turns brings an item up when it’s time and otherwise stays out of my way. Omnifocus let’s me be as forgetful as I want.

That’s all nice, but what about the new version?

The Look

Version 1 has not received a visual update in years and frankly, looked pretty dated for quite some time. The new look is much cleaner and in my opinion was worth the wait. The inspector window has been intregrated into the main window similar to what Apple has introduced to its iWork suite.

It’s all very subtle and colours are used only sparsely to draw attention – especially to “Status Circles”. They indicate by a combination of colours and shapes if a task is

  • Overdue
  • Due today
  • Completed
  • Selected
  • Flagged
  • Repeating

It took me a while to get used to it but once you don’t have to look it up anymore, the information comes across quite nicely.

Review and Forecast

Up to this point the iPad version was the only one with the outstandingly well implemented review and forecast view. Not any longer as they found their way into the Mac version. The forecast view let’s you see on a timeline when what tasks are due blended on top with your calendar(s). You can select to see only a week or a month. You can also select specific weekdays, say all tasks due every Friday for the upcoming month – nice.

 

Quick capture

Omnifocus has always been the tool with the quickest way to enter a new task. On a Mac hit CMD+O and you’re ready to go. A welcome addition is that OF2 now auto-fills suggestions which makes it even faster:

 

Now in two flavours

Omnifocus for Mac now ships in two flavours – Standard and Pro. The difference in price is significant – €39,99 or €79,99. The Pro version adds the following features:

  • Create custom perspectives
  • Focus view
  • Applescript support

I believe the differentiation to be fair. The Standard version will most probably suit the most people. If you have so far only used the standard perspectives on the iPad, I guess it’s safe to go for the Standard version.

Personally I went for the Pro version as I do use the Focus view often due to the multitude of projects I need to deal with. I have used some custom perspectives in OF1 but I think I would also get away with the standard ones. Applescript support is certainly for the geeks – which I am. I have tied a few folders on my Mac via Hazel to remind me to actually pay bills, review files I dump into specific folders and a few others as well. But that’s just me.

Verdict

The upgrade is a solid one. Fresh look, redesigned Quick Open, Forecast and Review mode, Inspector and pinnable perspectives are welcome additions. I think it is a fair move to differentiate between Standard and Pro with a clear distinction in price. In both versions Omnifocus remains a professional task manager with still a steep learning curve due to the underlying GTD concept. What is still missing though is sharing of tasks – OF2 still is a one-man show and in our increasingly collaborative world this may become a show-stopper for some.

Pricing and Upgrades

OmniFocus 2 costs $39.99, with the Pro License at $79.99. Customers who purchased OmniFocus 1 from the Omni Store can purchase an OmniFocus 2 Standard license for $19.99 or a Pro license for $39.99. If you bought OmniFocus 1 from the Mac App Store, you can buy OmniFocus 2 and get the Pro feature set for free. For details see Omni’s upgrade page.