Making Info Visible for Better Decisions

A key part of the ScrumMaster’s or Product Owner’s job is making information visible.* Whether that’s a product backlog, taskboard, cumulative flow diagram, or a one-off visual for a specific need, good visuals lead to better decisions. Here are four principles for doing it well…

Focus on supporting decision-making.

Don’t just make a visual to make a visual. When making info visible, do it to support a decision.

Ask: What decision needs to be made? When? By whom?

Then: What info do they need to make a good decision? What relationships in the data do they need to see? What changes in the data are meaningful?

Finally: Where are these decision-makers before and during the decision? How can I make the info visible there?

For example, your Scrum team’s task board is designed to support a team member’s decision, “What should I work on next?” A well-designed board will make this almost obvious, narrowing it down to two or three choices. A poorly-designed board may have lots of information on it but fails to make this decision easier.

Use info hierarchy (think about zooming with your feet)

Information often has a natural hierarchy. For example, I’m visiting Tampa for the first time to teach a class later this month. As I was looking for a hotel, I started by looking at Florida on the map just to get a sense of where Tampa is relative to other places I’ve been in Florida. Then, I zoomed in on the city enough to see key landmarks like the airport, downtown, the location of my class, and a particular restaurant I wanted to visit. Finally, I zoomed to the street level around a few locations to understand the detail better.

If the Florida level map had shown all the streets and buildings, it would have been unreadable. I wouldn’t even have been able to figure out where Tampa was.

This seems obvious when talking about maps. But I frequently see task boards with no sense of hierarchy. Items are placed haphazardly on the board so position doesn’t tell them anything when viewing at a distance. Cards don’t have large, legible titles. Everything is written in the same small, illegible pen that requires walking up close to see the info.

It doesn’t have to be like this. On a task board: Use position to indicate priority and state. Even at 15-20 feet away, you’ll be able to tell something meaningful about the work. Give items big, legible titles. At 6-10 feet (i.e. daily standup distance), you’ll be able to tell what the items are. Write details in a smaller, less bold pen. You’ll be able to zoom with your feet to see the details, but like the streets on the Florida map, they won’t clutter the larger view.

The same principle applies to most visuals. Find the hierarchy and render it in a way that supports zooming to understand the data at different levels of detail.

Make every variation matter

Some of my clients think I’m a little OCD about this one, but I’m not; I just care about your brain.

When you create a visual, every variation should carry meaning. Position, size, color, pen size, capitalization. It should all mean something. Not just because a really clean visual is strangely satisfying (though it is). But because any unnecessary variation wastes brain power.

When you have a task board with mostly yellow stickies and one blue sticky, the viewer naturally wonders what blue means. “But I can just tell them color doesn’t matter,” you may say. Sure you can. And now a small portion of their limited cognitive resources are dedicated to filtering out that noise. That’s brain power that could be used to make a better decision. Instead, they’re wasting it on something completely meaningless.

Don’t impose unnecessary cognitive load. Your visuals support decision making best when every variation carries information that helps produce a better decision.

Use good tools

Finally, when creating visuals, use good tools. Your lovingly crafted task board with a nice info hierarchy and no arbitrary variations still fails to do its job if you used generic sticky notes that fall off the wall after a few hours. A few of our favorite tools:

These tools are of course more expensive than their generic alternatives. But consider the cost of a delayed or wrong decision for your team or just the slow drain on your motivation from using tools that don’t work. It’s worth using good tools.

Your Turn

Tell us in the comments how you intend to improve one of your visuals.

Maybe share how you’ve already used one of these principles.

Or, if you’re not sure how to improve a particular visual, comment about that, and let’s see what we can do with it.

* To the point that I often give the advice to my clients: “If you can’t fix it, make it more visible so those who can fix it will.”

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  1. I like the explanation of the concepts. It’s not as much of an issue with electronic boards (where the issue is not being able to see everything, rather than being overwhelmed with content), but anyone using a physical board has seen how easy it is for stories to get overwhelming. The hierarchical approach provides a much easier way to understand what work is out there.