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UX: Why Lists Save Time

Any information in the world falls into one of the 2 categories: it requires some action on our part, or it wants to be consumed (or browsed). The job of a UX designer or an infoviz/dataviz specialist, then, is to create UIs or pages with one of these goals in mind. If we want to subtly nudge users to browsing more pages in a passive mode, the design logic needs to be built just for that. If we want to help users act and save their time, rather than make them hang out on a web page,  then the page layout or user interface has to take that into account. I will show the difference between these two kinds of logic based on the  list and grid infoviz patterns from a news hub and from a project management tool.

It’s quite common nowadays to display news as a grid of tagline+image sets, maybe with a mouseover text. Here’s one such grid:

news grid

If we think about it, this image+headline+mouseover layout is used with one major goal: engage users. Make them spend more time browsing the news, move mouse over images, check a few headlines, click on an image. Once a mouseover text is displayed, it’s an easy-lazy thing to get to the full view of the news, with advertisements, videos and social comments. The grid layout, thus, appears to eat more of users’s time, luring them with this ease to click and to browse. In general, if we lay this whole “engagement” thing aside, reading news is a passive online activity, and it can be completed rather quickly. So, if someone wants to scan the news, rather than get stuck in them, they wouldn’t want to hover mouse over those pieces, checking for the clues. The grid layout in the news appears to be more “engaging”, as they call it, but it loses in terms of time spent vs. value gained. I mean, what if I don’t have time to move mouse over those snapshots to find out what’s behind a headline? Busy readers will likely want to just scan the news and headlines. They don’t even need those large image thumbnails. That’s why a list layout scores higher on the time spent/value gained scale. Check this out:

news list

This layout allows  to scan many headlines+summaries in one look. Readers are able to decide faster, if they want to click on some news or not, without mouseovers. Apparently, I would want to read more about the cleanup from storms, which left three dead, and I don’t have to hover mouse over an image, as in a kid’s game, to find out what the cleanup from storms entails. That’s why I like the list layout better: it is more respectful of my time. I must give credit to the UX designers of this news portal, though. They have provided users with an option to choose between a list and a grid.

That was the case with passive browsing. A few “active” things available to users on a news web-site would be clicking on an ad (the more time they spent there, the more likely they are to do that), posting a comment and/or sharing news in social networks. That’s the logic behind the grid design in case you were wondering why such a draining layout — that’s how it looks to me — should ever be used in the news. Another handy example of grid slowing us down is… our desktop. Often I just save stuff to my desktop, files, snips or images, and when I want to find something, it takes more time and effort to move eyes between thumbs, as compared to using a list or search.

Let’s now consider the logic behind the list and grid/board layouts in a project management tool. The UI of such a tool must encourage users to spend time productively. It might seem a stretched parallel, but in some ways board/grid is less efficient for project management as well. Lists will work better when it gets to managing bugs, for example:

list view inline edit 1

If someone in charge, a QA manager, or anyone else, will want to create a living display of bugs, tailored for hands-on work, it would be such a list. Apart from the compact layout, the list has inline edit for most of the fields, and it’s like with processing fish: bug details can be updated faster than in a grid view. Besides, the very columns in this list are customizable; one can choose which column they want to see and which not. Now, what if this person in charge were to work with bugs displayed as a grid? Check this out:

board view mouse over

As with the news portal grid, one has to move mouse over bugs for more details, e.g. to check on a bug’s severity. This grid layout would be a plus if I had time to leisurely contemplate which card might mean what, but if I want to change a bug’s status, assign people, or update tags, I need to dive further in *sigh*, click on the bug card and work there. The grid layout does not allow for quick scanning of the bugs and quick editing/updating. But it would be optimal for changing states as they do on a Kanban board. Thankfully, this project management tool allows users to switch between views when they want to do whatever they want :)

I hope these examples helped reveal some logic behind designing information layouts for various purposes.

Related articles:

How Visualize: Board, List or Timeline?

Visual Management Software

How Timelines Help Project Managers Track Progress

My Favourite Ways to Visualize Ideas

We write a lot in the Edge of Chaos blog about visualization, and how helpful it is for project management, problem-solving, strategic thinking and learning. No matter if you’re an executive who wants to contemplate a business challenge from various perspectives, a software developer, or a strategizer, nothing can be as handy a tool as a pen and paper (or, in some cases, a digital screen) to hone your ideas and give them a finished touch. Visualizing ideas helps to drive the point home not only with yourself, but with the others, if you want to make sure that they understand what you mean.

Let me share some of my favourite ways to visualize ideas.

#1. An XYZ Coordinate System

I like this way of visualizing as it helps to build mental models that show how 3 factors might influence one another. Yes, they have 2D coordinate systems, X and Y, and I do use them, too, but in the complexity of today’s world where more than two factors often have to be taken into account, 3 D visualization might work out better. Here’s the image that I used in one of my articles to explain how backlog management can be done with 3D thinking, as opposed  to 2D (backlog and work in progress).  X-axis is work, Y-axis is progress, the X-Y plane is any work in progress AND Z-axis is any other 3d dimension, or a lens, through which one can filter the backlog or work in progress. The red lines in the Z-plane against the X-Y plane represent those various influences, or filtering criteria. The artistic execution might be far from perfect, but this image did help me express my idea better and pass it on to the readers:

3D-backlog-environment

#2. 4 Quadrants

I used this visualization to explain a decision-making technique. While the XYZ coordinate system provides some kind of 3D space to a concept, making it concrete, the 4 quadrants can be used to break abstract concepts into pieces.  It might be helpful, for example, to write out 4 major areas of concern about a problem or a challenge, look at them and drill them down to smaller resolvable issues. This technique helps to think clearly.

Cartesian 4 Decision-Making Quadrants

 

#3. Overlapping Circles

I somehow feel that this pattern have been overused to visualize a very simple overlap of 2 concepts, e.g. one circle stands for “good”, the other stands for “bad”, and the overlapping area is  the mixture of good and bad, which is kind of obvious without using circles. So, I’m not very fond of this practice, because it looks a bit trite, but I did use it several times, e.g. to show that business meetings are made up of 3 essential components mixed as in a bowl:

People-Problem-Goal

#4. Mind Maps

They work well to connect the idea nodes and summarize the concepts that someone already knows well. I’ve written the Mind Maps in Cognition article which suggests some points on when it makes sense to use mind maps, and when not. Here’s the mind map that I sketched as a summary of knowledge that software product owners need to have:

Product-Owner-Syllabus

#5. Custom Spatial Objects

That’s the visualization that I used to explain the idea of a new paradigm for project management tools. I had a sketch of this idea on paper, but this time someone helped me with a nice image:

the-paradigm-of-project-management-tools

This molecule glues the core paradigm to the other paradigms, rotating and gaining various momentums, depending on where they find themselves in space at any given point of rotation. The rotation is a symbol for changing goals and organizational environments, and the way they influence project management tools.

#6. Sketches in Moleskine notebooks (no grid lines)

I find this especially inviting when a sheet of paper has no grids. This freedom of paper space somehow encourages the freedom of thinking. An A4 sheet of paper does not do this trick for me, because a Moleskine notebook has pages, that can be flipped, and they can be kept for future use as a collection. Also, for some reason I like to start sketching on the right side of the double-page spread, and then continue on the left one, same way they do when they write in Arabic. I do idea sketches for my articles this way sometimes. Here’s the idea sketch for my recent article Visualization: Why the Fusion of Arts and Tech Matters:

an idea sketch

Related articles:

Visualization: Understated or Overrated?

Visualization and 5 Senses

Visualizing Music

Why Visualize?

Mind Maps in Cognition

Visualization: Why The Fusion of Arts and Tech Matters

When we speak of visualizations or visual management in technical or project management domain, visual arts hardly come to our mind. Information visualization, or data visualization is one thing, and visual arts is quite the other one. However, there’s a certain point where those two intersect, and in this write-up I will show how visually appealing displays of data or information differ from dull graphs, tables or reports.

There are two basic environments where any visual display can possibly exist: time and space. For visual arts, space is the environment. Arts come into the picture (no pun intended) as we look to portray a physical object or a group of objects on a painting, or as a sculpture, which is also a visual, albeit tangible. This might sound like a paradox, but ethereal visual arts are more down-to-earth than they appear as they can’t live if there’s no tangible 3D object that has to be rendered into a visual. This powerful painting depicts a very dramatic event happening in the physical world, as people try to save their lives and face the ruthless ocean and skies which however bring a tinge of hope with warmer colors.

Aivazovsky,_Ivan_-_The_Ninth_Wave

The emotions that this painting evokes  help it leave a certain footprint in our minds and hearts. Like, even in the hardest times the hope is always there. The painter uses art to make this very important message go home with us.

How is then a visualization different from a painting? Visualizations deal with abstract concepts as opposed to physical objects. Ironically, the dry technical reports are supposed to bring the ethereal and non-tangible things to being tangible. Timelines, as a method for visualization, represent a time-oriented display of concepts or data. Other ways of visualizing concepts and how they connect with each other include mindmaps, lists and boards (or dashboards). Think of to-do’s and to-do lists and various ways that we have to visualize them. A to-do, a task or a project is an abstract concept as well.

Why should this matter at all? John Dewey has something to say on that in his essay “Art as Experience”:

Art appeals directly to sense and the sensuous imagination, and many aesthetic and religious experiences occur as the result of energy and material used to expand and intensify the experience of life.

Of course, we are not talking about religious experiences here. But all of us are looking for the ways to make our intuition and creative abilities work at their best as we are search for a solution to a technical or an organizational problem. The cutting edge of brilliant performance with data insights and analysis is so elusive and so sought after that we hopelessly give up, thinking that it’s not us, but someone else who has this ability to take a brilliant decision backed by intuition. Look into this quote from the John Dewey’s essay closer. The key is: appeals directly to sense and sensuous imagination.  If a timeline, or a list, or a dashboard is visually appealing, then an analyst or a stakeholder will not simply spend less time on grasping the overview, but will be more likely to generate a crucial insight or take a well-rounded decision as the visual nicety will contribute to that by itself. I’m sure there is some scientific research nowadays that backs up this argument in terms of neuroscience. The bottomline is: there’s more pragmatism in art than one can imagine. If we surround ourselves with artful things, be it in our office space, or in our digital space, we’re more likely to perform better as decision-makers, stakeholders, or analysts, or as developers and QAs, or anyone else who uses visualizations in their work.

Related articles:

Visual Specifications

Visual Management Software

Visualization: Understated or Overrated?

Visualization and 5 Senses

Enterprise UX: Why the Paradigm Shifts

Visualizing Music

How Timelines Help Project Managers Track Progress

Visual Management Software

5

Existing project management tools have several serious flaws. They hide data inside and give the perception that you are in control. You are not. You don’t see the important things and have to dig through endless lists and reports in order to squeeze out the information you need. When you finally find something, it is not easy to change data you need. You have to navigate away, and visit several screens to achieve what you need. What a pain.

The real problem is that all existing project management tools are bad at information visualization.

Information Visualization

Many think that information visualization consists of fancy infographics, dashboards, and reports. That is far from true. There are many definitions, but I like this one:

Information visualization utilizes computer graphics and interaction to assist humans in solving problems. [Purchase et al., 2008, p. 58]

In a nutshell, you should be able to extract the data you want, present it any way you want, and manipulate it right away any way you want.

Problem #1. Find

It is quite easy to add data into software: projects, tasks, people, plans. It is not as easy to get this data back. Quite often you have limited filtering options and can’t narrow down lists, for example, of user stories in order to see just user stories you want. So you have to dig through the list, change pages to find a single story, do something with it, and repeat.

What if you can extract anything without limitations? Zoom and focus on things? Find exactly what you need?

Problem #2. See

Even if you can extract something, you can’t always see information in a way you want. Most tools rely on lists heavily and provide little options to see things better. Lists, some predefined boards, some predefined reports — that is all.

What if you can switch between different representations in a single click? What if you can see information in a one dimensional list, a two dimensional board, or a timeline with a single click?

Problem #3. Change

Even if some tools do provide visualizations, they are static. You can see a report, but can’t do anything with the data. You can see a timeline, but rarely can change it right away.

What if you could see something important and change data right there?

If you take any project management tool, you’ll see that it doesn’t follow information visualization principles. Everything is fragmented. Lists are here, boards are there, timelines are rare and often are not interactive. There are many limitations with finding exact data you need. There are even more limitations with changing data.

Targetprocess 3 was built to solve these problems in the roots in project management domain.

Targetprocess 3

Targetprocess 3 is a tool that has information visualization principles in its core. It removes many of the limitations that other tools have and gives you the freedom to handle data the way you want.

visualizationdata

Solution #1. Find

In Targetprocess 3 you can find anything using powerful filters. There is almost zero limitations and you can create very clever filters. When you have no limitations, you can extract exactly what you want and narrow down the data to see.

Solution #2. See

In Targetprocess 3 you can select data and quickly switch between various views in a single click: Boards represent two-dimensional views, Lists show hierarchies and Timelines show progress of things.

Boards

You can create any board in a minute: Kanban Board, Task Board, Work by Person, Roadmap and many, many others. The Board UI handles huge data easily via collapsing, focusing and zooming.

Ben Shneiderman stated a Visualization mantra:

Overview first, zoom and filter, then details-on-demand.

Views in Targetprocess take this mantra seriously. You can see the whole picture on board, zoom and filter when you want, and dig into details when you need.

Projects Portfolio Board

Lists

Sometimes you need to work with hierarchical data. For example, product backlog. Lists in Targetprocess 3 are really good at it. You can use filters and flexible settings to see exactly what you need on all levels, update anything in a snap.

Iteration Plan

Timelines

Most tools can’t give you a sense of Time. Any data in Targetprocess can be seen on a Timeline. Progress tracking on all levels is a breeze. You can track releases and iterations, see people’s workload, spot long tasks and delays, discover unexpected patterns in your development flow. Moreover, you can create projects portfolios, product roadmaps, plan releases and iterations. Visually.

Features Roadmap Timeline

Solution #3. Change

When you see something, you often want to change that. Targetprocess 3 helps you add entities quickly, select any entities you want and manipulate them via batch drag and drop. Lists provide beautiful experience in adding and editing data. Timelines enable visual manipulations to create roadmaps, plan releases and iterations.

In fact, Targetprocess 3 is a domain-specific visualization software. It focuses on project management domain and provides not static reports, but interactive visualizations. And that makes a big difference. Now information is at your fingertips and you can really find it, see it and change it on the spot.

Targetprocess is free for teams of 5 people. Go see for yourself.

DataViz 101: When To Visualize Numbers, and When Not To

Resuming the DataViz 101 series started last year, I want to revisit some basics for data visualization, showing when we get value from having numbers visualized, and when such a visualization is inappropriate. One of the main reasons that data visualization exists at all — be it smooth infographics, or slick project reports — is the fact that it saves us time needed to digest some quantitative information, i.e. the information that has numbers in it. Visuals present numbers in an appealing way, making them easier to read. Sometimes, however, they use visualized numbers with no substantial ground. If no meaning is ingrained into the graphical cuteness, a visual would make no sense. Some other technique for information rendering has to be used then, such as a text.

Take a look at one such case where numbers pretend to be visualized with some meaning, while actually failing to provide real value to people who look at them.

inadequate quantitative visualization

One can see this pattern with numbers highlighted quite often on web-sites for conferences or gatherings. Such a visual is supposed, presumably, to convince potential attendees that this conference holds some value for them.  However, I don’t see how it will help decide if a conference is worth attending or not.  There’s no universal converter that would work for each and every individual, and translate those hours of keynotes, workshops, trainings, and the count of speakers into a meaningful answer to one question: “Will I learn something new and useful for me personally at this conference?” How are these flat numbers capable to attend to the unique knowledge landscape of any given individual? No way, they can’t do it. Those people who are looking to decide for themselves if a conference is worth attending or not, might as well skip this “hippish” part with meaningless numbers, and proceed straight on to the text piece about the speakers, keynotes, workshops and training. Bad news for someone who did this visual: they’ve wasted both their time, and the time of the site visitors.

Here’s the other example that shows how visualized numbers can help in project management:

teams work dynamics sparklines

This is a sparkline report, and while it includes numbers that seem to hold no meaning to an external observer, an insider who looks at the graph is likely to know the project context: how user stories and bugs are sized in general, how much effort does it take to have them completed, and how these numbers can be rendered into a diagnosis report on the project health. Compare the sparkline graph and this text: “This report covers the last 16 weeks. Designers had their backlog full with 13 user stories in the first week, with fewer and fewer new stories added in the next weeks. They completed 3 stories, and had 2 more added to their backlog in the current week”. Of course, the sparkline renders this info in a more compact and time-saving way.

As a summary, before we hurry to create a visual report, or an infographic with numbers,  we need to consider if a user or a reader will get the info they want fast from this visual.  Some information can be rendered best as a piece of text, like in this first example from a web-site of a conference. Words would have taken readers to the core of the matter faster. In the second example, it’s the other way round. It would take more time to convey the same information in words.

42 Timelines Is The Answer

This article includes 42 timelines that I looked at recently. Timelines are used in education, finance, aviation, banking, news and media, in project management and what not. I hope this one-stop collection will foster a feel for good visualizations, helping you be creative with your own timelines.

There goes. Let’s start with timelines in education.

#1. Native American Timeline

The history of Native Americans is presented as a railroad with stops.

Native American Timeline

#2. Historia Timeline

Some major history events with pictures are listed here.  This is rather a repeating sequence of date-text-picture pieces, not a classical timeline with x-y axes. It works well for educational purposes, nevertheless.

History Timeline 1

#3 History of the Earth

This timeline embraces 5 billion years. I like how eras are synced with water and earth stages.

Historia-de-la-Terra

#4. Microbiology Events

Here’s the explanation of specific time periods from this timeline. The layout is similar to #2.

Microbiology

#5. Timeline of World Religions

It would take a lot more time to retrieve the information presented on this timeline from plain text.

Timeline of World Religions

#6. The History of English

Same as with #5.

The History of English Timeline

#7. The Growth of The Republic: Population and Economy

This is a fragment from the awesome infographic A Visual History of the American Presidency, which has several timelines incorporated into it. The growth of the republic timeline shows how population and GDP were growing with time, along more states joining the Union. You can explore this infographic online for more details, the screen below is given for quick reference.

The-Growth-of-the-Republic-US-Presidency

#8. US Presidents Succession Timeline

Another fragment of the same infographic. Fluctuations in popularity are mapped over years.

US-Presidents

#9. The Ideological Dynamics of the US House of Representatives

This timeline shows how conservatives, liberals, democrats, GOPs, etc. correlated over time. The source infographic is interactive: data can be filtered by state and by party.

House of Representatives

#10. Kennedy Shooting

Another reference to US Presidency, a sad one. This timeline has a mix of daily and hourly distribution of events, depending on how fast they unfolded. The source timeline is interactive; bubbles with more information open by clicking on dots.

Kennedy Shooting

#11. Alcohol Taxes – The Tipsy Turvy Republic of Alcohol

Let’s switch from US Presidents to US alcohol. This timeline is self-explanatory (click for high-res).

The-Tipsy-Turvy-Republic-of-Alcohol

#12. A Century of Motoring in America

I found this timeline in the Information Graphics book. Here’s how it’s described: “This is a history of the automobile in one image. Using the metaphor of a board game, the graphic follows the most important milestones in the first 100 years of cars. ..History is thus conceived as a timeline drawn on a fictional map.”
A Century of Motoring in America

#13. LA – NYC Road Trip Timeline

Country roads, take me home.. That’s the feeling that I get looking at this timeline. 2 guys drove from LA to NYC for 14 days, and made 4219 miles. The color-coding in timeline shows who drove, for how many miles, which places they drove by on any given day. You can explore this timeline in more detail here.
LAxNYC-map-full

#14. NFL — History of Current Franchises

This timeline is a bit unusual, with events going from top to the bottom. Each bar is a team, colors show which league the team belonged to throughout the history (click for hi-res).

NFL-Franchise-Timeline

#15. Bestselling Books

This timeline shows how the rank of bestsellers in Catalonia (Spain) fluctuated from Oct 2007 thru Oct 2008. With timelines, dotted and solid lines are used to convey more information quite often. Here, the dotted lines are used to accentuate best sellers that dropped out of top 10. The books by Catalonian authors are shown in red, the others – in blue. I included this timeline not for the sake of the info that it conveys (sorry, I don’t speak Spanish), but for the sake of showing that a timeline can be used to represent such kind of information as well.
los-libros-mal-vendidos

#16. Mission to Mars

An unusual timeline showing Mars as a destination for many missions that resemble tentacles closing in on the Red Planet over a circle of time.

Mission to Mars

#17. Sleep Agony Timeline

From Mars to purely down-to-Earth matters, such as sleep. That’s a sleep timeline from a life of a parent in NYC.

Sleep-Agony-Chart

#18. Sleep Bliss Timeline

Here’s how it looks. Not as cluttered as the agony one.

Sleep-Bliss-Chart

#19. Motown’s 191 Number One Hits

One more timeline from the Information Graphics book by Taschen. The distribution of 191 top hits released under the legendary Motown label is shown over time, with years – months intersections running by circles. Color coding refers to the most successful artists. You can look into more details of this timeline here.

Motown

#20. The Web Technology Timeline

No comments :)

The-Web-Technology-timeline

#21. Transparency Productivity

This timeline explores the connection between technology and productivity. No outstanding infoviz mastery here, just a good quick-look timeline.
Transparency Productivity

#22. Life Online

This high-density timeline shows how technology influences social life over time. If you want to take a close zoom-in look at  it, as well as on the timelines #23 and #24, there’s only one way to do it – get this book. The timelines were created by Paul Butt.
Life-Online-Big
A close-in on technology…
Life Online 1
…overlaying with culture/media events:
Life Online 2
…and with the count of visitors per month for major online hubs:
Life Online 3

#23. Disk Space

The evolution of data storage and processing.
Disk-Space
A a close-in on a piece of this circle timeline:
Disk Space 1

#24. Mobile Evolution

The evolution of mobile phones and text messaging.
Mobile-Evolution

#25. Timeline of MS Windows

It only traces the evolution of Windows till 2007, but the rest of Windows history can be visualized in the same fashion. The timeline overlays MS Windows versions with devices.
Timeline of MS Windows

#26. CNN Traffic Analysis

The central spike chart demonstrates weekly page-views over time; black tags mark the ten busiest weeks, with specific events highlighted with white tags below the central axis. In the lower part, the growth of site categories is tracked.  This timeline demonstrates the evidence of how CNN.com became accepted as a timely news source.
CNN traffic analysis
A close-in on the bottom-right part of the timeline:
CNN traffic analysis 2

#27. Airline Business Timeline

I have a special kind of love for some airlines, so I like to look at timelines related to aviation. The interactivity is here.
Airline Business Timeline

#28. The Flights Timeline

Powered by Hipmunk. It’s easier to pick a flight with this visualization. Expedia  has no such timelines, as far as I remember.
The Hipmunk Flights Timeline

#29. World’s Worst Plane Accidents

Look at this timeline, and fly safe, always.
USA-CRASH/WORST C

#30. 3D in Focus

This timeline shows the rise in box office earnings from 3D movies, as well as a timeline of every 3D movie released in the last ten years. Created by Reuters.
3D in focus

#31. A History of Violence

Another timeline by Reuters. It’s the job of news agencies to deliver information to the public, in a concise and timely fashion; so it’s no wonder that Reuters produces lots of great timelines.

A History of Violence

#32. Booms and Busts

Probably, financial timelines are the ones that we see most often. I included a couple of them to this collection. Click here for the interactive version of the Booms and Busts timeline.
Booms and Busts

#33. Oil Price Timeline

Barrels over time, by Reuters (source).
Oil price timeline

#34. Euro Zone Debt Crisis

Good job. I mean, not the crisis, but the timeline.

Euro Zone Debt Crisis

#35.  Gantt Chart Timeline in MS Project

Rounding this list up with timelines related to project management. Gantt chart is the grandfather of such timelines. Maybe someone has forgotten already how those look? Here’s the reminder.
Gantt chart with MS Project

#36. Multiple Projects Timeline in Excel

I found this timeline here, and I can’t but admire people who manage to track their projects in Excel. However, I wouldn’t say that this timeline will work for complex projects. This Excel timeline shows personal projects, plotted over time.
ProjectTimelineComplicatedExcel

#37. Basecamp Timeline

Heh, this number goes to 37 signals who recently rebranded themselves to Basecamp.I will turn on the critical mode here. This information is presented as a timeline, but to me it looks likes a feed of events. The alternation from the left to the right breaks the monotony, but probably this screen could have been used to convey some other information. When there’s too little info over too much space, it’s called “low information density” in infoviz lingo.
Basecamp-Timeline

#38. IntelliGantt Timeline for BaseCamp

That’s a BaseCamp-based modification that someone created. Months and days are vertical lanes, horizontal lanes are people. I like it, that’s a nice timeline to see the dynamics of assignments per person on a timeline.
IntelliGantt for BaseCamp

#39. Planning and Construction Timeline

For a change, here’s a timeline unrelated to software development. It shows when the building units will be busy or vacant, and how the construction will be planned.
Proposed Housing Master Plan Timeline

#40. A Hand-Drawn Project Timeline

Anyone can draw a timeline on a whiteboard. That’s a timeline sketch that we’ve done about a year ago. At the moment, something similar to this timeline is available  in our project management tool. Hand-drawn timelines can work if someone takes on the responsibility for syncing all the data from the tool with the timeline (think, how much data you have?)
A Hand-Drawn Timeline

#41. Product Features on a Timeline

We use digital timelines more often than the hand-drawn ones, no doubt. That’s how a timeline for features looks in Targetprocess 3.
TP3 Features

#42. Person-Project Assignments Timeline

With a switch in settings, we will get another timeline view. I’d better stop here because I’m tempted to showcase even more timelines that we’ve made possible, but that probably would be too much.
By Person Timeline

These were my 42 timelines. I stopped at 42 because it’s the ultimate answer to anything. The whole Universe consists of overlaying timelines, if we think about it. Some timelines exist simultaneously in parallel spaces, some timelines are consecutive. Thinking with timelines not only helps us grasp information fast. It helps us embrace the whole world.

Stuck with Kanban? Consider Multiban

A couple months ago in the article Kanban as Multiban? I questioned the applicability of simple Kanban boards for managing complex software development projects, and suggested the concept of Multiban. This short word inherits the practice of visual project management with boards taking the baton from Kanban, and looks like a good coin term for this innovative concept to me. “Ban” stands for “board” in Japanese, Kanban is a “signboard”, and Multiban is a Japanese-English mix which means “many boards”. In this article I will tell more about the use of “many boards” for visual project management, showing how Multiban differs from Kanban, and when it’s  better to use Multiban instead of Kanban. Shortly, a Kanban will work well for a small company with only so much of work items, and with a straightforward development process. For a larger organization with many teams and many projects, a traditional Kanban board will not be enough. If you want to get the best of all the project Big Data in your organization, it’s time to consider Multiban. It doesn’t matter if your development process is Kanban, or Scrum, or any other lean or agile or whichever process. The Multiban covers everything.

There are 2 basic entities that Kanban and Multiban have in common: a card and a board. Let’s look in to the differences.

How a card in Kanban is different from a card in Multiban?

A Kanban card can be pinned only to one board.  No matter if the Kanban board is a physical or an electronic one, the card is tied to it and can’t live anywhere else. Besides, a Kanban card usually signifies work items only. Now take a look at the list of Multiban cards:

cards summary

Pretty impressive, huh? Apart from being impressive this diversity of cards powers the very ability to visualize project work in many different ways. Here’s another crucial point of difference: one and the same Multiban card can live on many boards. If cards are available only for work items, as in Kanban, one can visualize how work streams through development states, pretty much as in material production. Software development, however, dictates the need to take many ad hoc factors into account. Big IT projects in a large enterprise company can be anything, but straightforward, unlike a car assembly line. If someone wants to control this complexity, without too much extra effort and time, a set of various cards visualized on many boards looks like a must-have gear .

How a board in Kanban is different from a board in Multiban?

With Kanban, a board is just one board to which the cards are pinned. With Multiban, a board is a slate of switchable data axes (or lanes), with custom intersections. This slate can also be converted to a list view, or a timeline view, or a card details view. Actually, it’s for that reason that one and the same Multiban card lives on many boards. With switchable lanes, it can appear in various contexts. A Multiban tool has the switcher of those axes and perspectives (see the full list of available combinations) that allows to set up any board as a custom 2D data grid in no time:

the Multiban switcher in Targetprocess 3

Next, given that we deal with one digital screen, the single option of using board as a pinboard will not be enough. If all you have is a visualization with a board and cards only, this will pose a limit on the versatility of visualizations. What if you need to see work items and other entities as a list? Or as a timeline? Or what if you want to zoom in on just one entity? With Multiban, the electronic slate can be tweaked. It’s now rather not a board, but a flat white space that turns into a list, or a timeline, or a board with cards. Check the purple arrows on that screen. They highlight the 3 basic switchers that are used to set up any board.

board type switcher in Targetprocess 3

This image gives an excellent summary of the Multiban approach:

the summary of boards in Targetprocess 3

The “see data” stage is where you configure a custom visualization of any data entered to your project management tool that supports Multiban. You will want to ask yourself: “How do I need to see this?”  instead of  ”What will this board allow me to see?” All those many boards are available, waiting to be picked by you.

Too many cards, too many boards… Do I need this?

It might seem that it’s so easy to get lost in this versatility of cards and boards. Sometimes, freedom of choice is more intimidating than no choice at all. It does take some time to get used to the switchability of everything in Multiban. Too many cards can be sorted, filtered, paginated, zoomed in or out. Too many boards can be stored in folders, as in a file management system.  It might seem an overkill to use Multiban if you’re happy with a simple Kanban board for one project, with < 100 cards, and with a straightforward development process.  But, for example, a fixed Kanban board will not be able to showcase a portfolio of projects like that:

Projects PortfolioIf you want to learn more on when and how it’s best to work with Multiban, check out these use cases… or look into the peephole in the fence on the right.

Related article:

Kanban as Multiban?

Visualization and 5 Senses

It’s interesting to trace back  the origin of the trends in business and technology to the intrinsic needs that we as humans have in the changing environment. People influence technology, technology influences people, and the cynical adage that laziness drives all progress proves to be true time and again. I’ve already written an article on how Big Data trend is powered by human desire of stakeholders to dodge the responsibility of prioritizing and making decisions. Or, why the evolution of Agile movement has purely human implications. Or, why people resorted to Kanban after trying Scrum as intrinsically they related to Kanban’s “no deadline” philosophy.

Today I want to share some thoughts on the origins of the trend for visualization. Why it has taken the lead, and is getting more and more evangelists? I like to dig deep, so I’ll first take a look as far back as to the prehistoric times. This analysis might provide some food for thought, and probably will help you see how other technology trends are downright rooted in the properties of human psyche and physique. The one with knowledge is the one who is powerful, so make yourself comfortable and read on.

The Five Senses in Prehistoric Times

Ancient hunters and gatherers relied on their five senses as the devices to signal an immediate threat, or a promise of food or water. Like, a certain smell in the air might have meant something. Or, a sound of a dangerous animal moving in the forest. Or any other sign of danger. In fact, actually seeing some dangerous thing might have been too late. Some fast running predator could grab a defenseless human in an instant, leaving no option for retreat. Eyesight worked as a part of the 5-component system, and did not get extra overload as compared to the other senses. One example of a visualization from those times would be cave paintings, which the hunters would draw as a part of their ritual for success at hunting:

Cave paintings

This picture differs from what we mean by “visualization” nowadays. It is a projected vision of those hunters who believed that if they visualize their plea, it would help them survive. I’ve singled out this particular case for the sake of showing that the sense of vision might not have meant that much to ancient humans as a sense of perception, but was more important as a sense of projection.  I’m using a simplified perspective here on purpose.

The Five Senses in the Information Age

Taking a huge leap, we now move on to the Information Age that started somewhere in the second half of the 20th century and continues up til now. I’ve skipped the industrial revolution as the changes that it brought about haven’t been that drastic and lifestyle-altering as the changes coming along with the Information Age. Let’s see how the perception load is distributed between the five senses now. There’s no need to visualize this in a distribution chart (*ironic*), it goes without saying that eyesight is the most overloaded out of all our five senses. Some people perceive information via their unlocked 6th sense ESP, but my article is not about that. It’s a given that most of the signals that we receive from the external environment are coming through our eyes. This is especially true for the information technology workers.

the overloaded eyesight

We’re spending most of our lives looking at digital screens. Phones, laptops, TV.  Hearing might have a chance competing with eyesight. But the sense of smell, taste and touch have lost their significance as compared to prehistoric times. Once I thought how great this would be if we could smell a fragrance that we consider purchasing over the web. Or touch this carpet to feel if it’s really that soft, thick and comfy. But we only have our eyesight for anything that comes from a screen (mostly). We’ve traded the other senses for more comfortable existence, and we have to deal with it, so our body wants to develop some coping mechanisms for this overload.

Visualize for Watching Less? 

I consider the modern trend for data and information visualization simply a consequence of our overloaded eyesight. If you’ve studied some sources, you might have observed this trend developing in line with the growing information volumes. Our collective unconscious makes us come up with ways to limit exposure to visual signals, striving to keep all the 5 senses balanced. It’s hardly that the sense of smell, or touch, or taste would gain precedence over eyesight and hearing as the information channels, but at least some coping mechanisms can be developed. That’s why we tend to present textual information as laconic visuals if it’s too much to read (I’ve given an example of that in my recent article on the taxonomy of names in sports leagues). Or, as with data visualization, we now prefer to make sense of analytical reports presented not as a text but as a visual. It’s just too damn long to read this in a text! Have mercy on our poor eyesight, someone! That’s what the trend for visualization is about. By the way, have you noticed that most IT-people are listening to music in earphones as they work? At least, some of the time. This is yet another unconscious attempt to ease up the overloaded eyesight by shifting balance to the hearing receptors. Hearing is the only other sense that we can use as we work with computers.

visualize

No doubt, we can understand concepts and do analytics faster with visuals. Let alone quickness, a more powerful driving force for that trend is something that sits deep inside of us, humans, as we want to keep our senses in balance. Another example of imbalance in the duo of eyesight-hearing would be online text messaging. Natural communication involves hearing and speaking in a company of other people. If for the most part people “talk” by means of typing on the keyboard, this adds up to the overload that our eyesight has even without this, processing all the other kinds of information. It feels like a huge energy drain if I have to spend much time reading messages in Skype or posting comments in online discussions. That’s why I do this only when needed. I’m not sure which subliminal remedy the humans will invent for that. Will we develop some universal hieroglyphic writing as a replacement for phonetic-based written texts, for the sake of saving our eyesight from yet another overload? I don’t have answer to this question so far.

Related articles:

Visualization: Understated Or Overrated?

Edge of Chaos blog posts on visualization

How Visualize: Board, List or Timeline?

Recently I’ve written a blog about the benefits of visual thinking.  Assuming that many of you are now aware of the advantages that visuals bring to the table, I’d like to give a few tips on how to visualize work in agile project management. Visual reports would probably be the first thing that comes to mind in this context. That’s right, visualization is most commonly used in reporting. Everyone wants comprehensive reports, fast, and that’s what visuals deliver. All kinds of stats and metrics wrapped up in a nice graphical skin, just as in this process control chart:

Process Control Chart

A Process Control chart in Targetprocess

My main focus this time is not on the visual reports, though. There’s a baseline dimension for visual choices in agile project management, as we’re looking for the most convenient ways to see exactly what we want to see. We might need to view our projects from various perspectives, and we need flexibility with visualizing things. Boards, lists and timelines would cover most of such needs. Let’s now look which of those three would be best suited for which tasks.

#1. Boards

You will want to visualize work on a board if you need to intersect  2+ properties of a card, or if you want cards grouped by any of 2+ properties. All that switchable visualization magic can only happen if your agile project management tool does the job as described in the Kanban as Multiban? blog . Unlike the classical Kanban board, this board is supposed to be a switchable 2D (or even 3D) grid of any properties of a card or a group of cards . This is a must-have prerequisite for that limitless freedom with visualizing projects on a board. I’m aware of only one tool that has this “switchability“. Let me give some examples.

You want to know who is doing what. Which person has which to do’s assigned to them. Hmm, this is not something that you would easily see on a static Kanban board. You can dial in a custom people-work grid, and here’s how it would look on the board (click to enlarge):

development work by person in Targetprocess 3

User Stories, Bugs and Tasks by person in Targetprocess 3. Who’s doing what?

Then, you want to know about impediments, and how are they blocking progress in your projects. Switch the grids, and see them with ruthless clarity:

impediments by projects and states in Targetprocess 3

Impediments by Projects and States in Targetprocess 3

Visualizing a project with any of the switchable boards makes sense for anything drag-n-drop. It’s more than moving cards between states. The switchability will allow to fit almost any change to a drag-n-drop action. That’s how one can arrange user stories on a board for estimating. The 1, 2, 3, etc. vertical lanes are points. A user story will be dropped to any of those lanes when estimated:

estimate user stories in Targetprocess 3

Estimating user stories with drag-n-drop in Targetprocess 3

#2. Timelines

You will want to visualize something as a timeline if you need an activity or a group of activities plotted on a timescale, with some explicitly marked milestones. This is called roadmapping. If time-sensitive activities are visualized on a board, with the intersected year quarters and epics as on the screen below, the feel of time would not “sink in” that well :

a quarterly breakdown of work -workaround in Targetprocess 3

A workaround for roadmapping in Targetprocess 3

.. as with a roadmap shown on a timeline. The sense of time is more acute with this visualization:

a large timeline in Targetprocess 3

Roadmapping with timelines in Targetprocess 3

Tracking work on a timeline  helps get a clear picture in one look. A timeline would also work better than any other visualization if you need to see individual allocations across several projects:

individual allocations on a timeline in Targetprocess 3

Individual allocations on a timeline in Targetprocess 3

One absurd idea for using timelines, just to give you a strong anti-pattern, would be to visualize  a tag as a timeline. Sounds weird. A tag is a tag, no one cares, when and why has a user story been tagged with a tag. Hmm.. However, there still can be a realistic case even for that, if one would want to see when this tag was first used, to which to-do’s was it applied, etc.

I’ve been using timeline visualizations from Targetprocess 3 in the examples above. Frankly, if you want to visualize with timelines, you’d hardly do without an electronic tool. Apart from the switchability, it takes quite some effort to draw timelines on a physical whiteboard.  Guess how much time would it take to draw a timeline any time one wants to get a custom visualization?

roadmapping in a timeline Targetprocess 3

A roadmap on a whiteboard

#3. Lists

You will want to visualize work as a list if there are only a few to-do items,  or if you need to trace the hierarchy of epics -> user stories-> tasks-> bugs as here:lists sketch for Targetprocess 3

A sketch of lists in Targetprocess 3

A list also comes handy if you are hastily typing in the to-do’s, especially if on the go, catching ideas before they go. With no big screen for boards and timelines around, you might want to use lists on a mobile device:

list view in Targetprocess 3 iOS app

A list view in Targetprocess 3 iOS app

As a summary, your visualization choices will depend on what you want to see, or what you want to do. Switchable boards and timelines can visualize anything. If you’re still skeptical about that, check this page with even more board visualizations.

Kanban as Multiban?

We’ve been working for several years with Kanban process, and there’s quite a bit of experience about it that we’ve shared (see the posts tagged with “kanban”). I’ve contemplated things around Kanban recently, and here’s another interesting perspective. It might help make more sense of the Kanban method as a method for managing knowledge work, and software development work, in particular.

If we look into the 6 core Kanban practices, as identified by David J. Anderson in his fundamental book “Kanban — Successful Evolutionary Change for your Technology Business“, the first practice is “visualize“.  While the other 5 practices (Limit WIP, manage flow, make policies explicit, implement feedback loops, improve collaboratively) are very important, the visualization practice is the key to all of them. Taking a flashback into how Kanban evolved historically, first it was a system “to control the logistical chain from a production point of view“.  Seems like Kanban as a method for software development differs from Kanban as a scheduling system for the material production in the following 2 things (mainly):  non-linearity of the production process, and diversity of concepts and workflows.

I can imagine what the first sparkle that inspired software development folks about Kanban was. Some of us have this special relationship with the concept of “deadlines”, and probably Kanban — on a purely human, maybe even subconscious, level — has been seen as an opportunity to break away from deadlines and estimates. Well, might be that Kanban came later than Scrum due to the fact that people got tired of the time-boxed iterations. And there it goes, a trendy new method for software development, that says: no time-boxing! Do your work at your own pace, and don’t worry about deadlines!

That’s the most obvious advantage that laid on the surface, and that’s why software folks were so glad to switch to Kanban, intrinsically. The Kanban movement started back in ’09-10, and the 5 Wrong Reasons to Apply Kanban and 5 Right Reasons to Apply Kanban posts in our blog are the evergreens that can provide some practical advice even now (especially as they resonate with the current NoEstimates movement).

Now, if the flow and no estimates aspect is a woo in Kanban as copy-pasted from the material logistics model, we’re having a bumpy issue with the visualization core practice. The easiest way to go would be to copy-paste the visual production flow from logistics, as a stock of parts in the warehouse (the backlog) reduces, and then sequentially goes through the In Progress and Done states:

Kanban flow

Looks as easy as a pie, right? But, remember, software development is a knowledge work. While some part of it, such as work items (user stories, tasks and bugs) can indeed go through this simplistic flow sequentially, there’s a bunch of non-material related concepts and dependencies that those work items carry along with them.  They are the non-linear “sticky fish” that might hinder the movements of this big whale called “software production’. Visualizing  this knowledge work is not something confined solely to workflow and limiting WIP. Working with Kanban as a method implies visualizing various concepts about processes. Kanban is ultimately a “signboard”. One straightforward Kanban board often lacks all those multiple perspectives that we need to monitor processes and to make them explicit. Obviously, a part of this limitation can well be addressed by swimlanes, when Kanban is not a board with just columns, but a grid of switchable columns+swimlanes. It’s quite hard to get such a level of visualization on a physical board, too cumbersome to maintain. Fixed swimlanes on an electronic board (or, even switchable swimlanes but with some limitations) would not be enough. Kanban in the context of knowledge work requires unlimited columns+swimlanes combinations, with a plethora of custom 2D data grids. And we need to switch them fast, in a few clicks. Well, we can use tags to add another optional dimension for work items, but sometimes tags are not enough.

What we need from our Kanban boards for software development projects would look like this:

image71Any data from the project could be extracted from the database and visualized in an instant. The teams-work items grid above is just one example.  This sketch implies fast swapping of the vertical and horizontal lanes and visualizing the same data in a different way, with even more sophisticated filtering  for the lanes available, if required. For example, you’ve created a 2D grid that shows user stories grouped by features. You only need to see the stories from the “open”  features, to unclog the grid (features are represented by the horizontal lanes):

image22

Here’s the list of possible properties (“the sticky fish”) that can go along with a user story:

  • Iteration: if you see the upcoming iterations, you can move the stories to the grid cells, and create an iteration plan.
  • Release: same as above, for a release.
  • State: this would be a classical Kanban board.
  • Priority: user stories can be prioritized similarly to how the states are changed.
  • Effort: same as above, but for effort.
  • Feature: that would be a story map backlog.
  • Person: a work-by-person grid.
  • Project: user stories broken down by projects.
  • Team: user stories broken down by teams.
  • Tags: even more flexibility.
  • Custom fields: same as above.

That’s the diversity of 2D visualizations that we could have with just one swimlane. But it’s not only about swimlanes. Both the horizontal and vertical lanes could be tuned in the same fashion, unveiling thousands of custom 2D views.

So, what we would have here is not just one Kanban. It’s a “Multiban” —  many boards on one screen, where boards are switchable 2D data grids, and the data itself remains intact. Another example of such a data view is this: work by teams screen

Imagine this freedom. With such unlimited ability to visualize anything, the Kanban method would make much more sense. Any concepts, any perspective that you need could be visualized. If we have the first visualization core practice for Kanban handled that well, we would be able to take advantage of the 5 other Kanban core practices, mentioned above, and utilize Kanban as a process to manage software production (the knowledge work) more fully. That’s what we are coming up with in the next version of our project management tool, and in this post I tried to provide some “behind the scenes” reasons for that.

Related article:

Stuck with Kanban? Consider Multiban

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