Designing the NBS Visual Vocabulary: How An Idle Challenge Turned Into An Everyday BI Tool

By Richard Speigal, Senior BI Consultant, Nationwide Building Society

Anyone can make a chart, but what’s the right chart? It’s a daily question for BI practitioners, and many of us have been using the highly acclaimed FT Visual Vocabulary to answer that question since its release in 2016.

The Visual Vocabulary is a simple design document that breaks visualisations into logical categories:

The viz vocab is a quick reference for organising your thoughts and discussing design. Need to show distribution? Here are lots of ways to show distribution, with unvarnished pros and cons.

It made us wonder: “How many of these could we build in Qlik?”

We’d certainly seen it done with other BI tools but nobody had yet picked up the challenge with Qlik Sense, so we kicked off a side-of-desk project to test ourselves. This resulted some weeks later in a workbook containing over 50 charts organised in the same way as the FT original.

Theme development was something we were also interested in, so we stole some time with our internal design team to help us add a Nationwide “look” to the final workbook.

The result is a Qlik Sense app now in daily use around the Society, by both business users and developers.

The journey was interesting in many ways, but mostly because it turned out this single workbook helped us overcome several challenges every BI and analytics team will understand.

1. Drive Better Business Conversations

Data literacy varies widely, even in a corporate finance setting.

This creates very practical challenges in how we design business intelligence apps. What resonates with a finance team may not land with an HR team and vice-versa, so we try to approach design in a very collaborative way, sensitive way.

The viz vocab is a resource we now regularly coalesce around with our users during design phase. It is often met with “I didn’t know a dashboard could look like this!” and instantly creates an open discussion on the pros and cons of different ways to present data.

It’s also a practical timesaver. We don’t have to physically build worksheet objects or spend time creating elaborate sketches to tease out solutions. Open a workbook, discuss and iterate.

2. Provide A Practical “How To” For Developers

We set ourselves the challenge of only using built-in visualisations or Picasso.js to build our workbook. This meant taking a novel approach for some visualisations e.g. you can do a bar chart, but what’s the trick for a spine chart? Or a lollipop? The app became a practical learning guide for developers.

Now when they see a chart they like, they can quickly look behind the design to see how it was built and implement their own version.

It’s another simple daily timesaver that helps us move faster from design to production.

3. Create A Corporate Style Guide

It’s easy in a big team for dashboards to lose visual consistency. Our people are talented developers, but that doesn’t make them artists - design decisions can be a chore when there’s so much else to think about.

We were keen to settle on an official style guide for our Qlik Sense apps and free the team from design decisions to create a more uniform output.

To do this requires developing a custom theme. Qlik’s theme development tools are a powerful framework for customisation and when done well, the developer can get visualisations that simply “look right” out-of-the-box.

We hit a roadblock early in development though when we realised that it’s hard to fully test a theme without lots of demo charts and objects. Our initial efforts were often met with queries about colours not working consistently across all chart types.

Using the Visual Vocabulary took the guesswork out of the process.

Having an app with so much variation helped us truly battle test our corporate theme and ensure consistent styling. We ended up with a working app and style guide that provides enough inspiration to save time, without stifling creativity.

Can You Make It Better?

We’re very happy to share our workbook with the Qlik community and encourage others to take it and improve upon it. There are undoubtedly lots more visualisations that can be achieved and you may also find it a really useful tool for testing your own themes.

Get the Nationwide Building Society Visual Vocabulary app on Qlik Gallery

Please feel free to copy, share and improve on our workbook, we can’t wait to see what you make!

@AskNationwide uses a visual vocabulary to drive better business decisions, help its developers & establish a corporate style guide -- all through @Qlik

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