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The True Colors of Key Performance Indicators

Originally published July 12, 2007

When the eye sees a color it is immediately excited, and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original color comprehends the whole chromatic scale. A single color excites, by a specific sensation, the tendency to universality.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colors

In order to measure business performance, the usage of key performance indicators (KPIs) that are presented in a dashboard (sometimes called a cockpit) is becoming more and more widespread. Simply put, KPIs are supposed to give a quick, clear and comprehensible overview of how the business is doing. And using KPIs is really great, as they can:

  • Quickly indicate weak performance, usually marked in amber, or really weak performance, marked in red (anything else is marked in green).

  • Quickly indicate that the business actually knows what it is doing, how it is doing, and what it should be doing (all in color).

  • Quickly help identify who is colorblind at work, and thus who is having difficulties understanding the dashboard.

The color thing is especially interesting. Use of the color red will quickly highlight any problems for the activity being measured, and green shows that things are okay. In practice, few look at the green and instead focus on the red. In between, we have amber.

Why do we call this middle color amber? Why not just call it yellow or orange? Why be pretentious and call it amber? Who knows?

If we stick to this irrational logic, red should be called ruby and green should be called emerald. Should anyone want to use blue, it is now sapphire. White is diamond and black is hematite (not to be confused with hepatitis, which would be yellow). Grey is pearl – and everything else is crystal clear.

But hey, it does make the dashboard a lot sexier if there is some amber to it, right? Therefore, it makes perfect sense to call boring yellow something else. In any case, yellow – sorry, I mean amber – is always squeezed in between red and green. Sometimes amber is good (because it is no longer red), sometimes it is bad (because it is not green). In the end, the color that gets most attention is red (or should I say ruby?).

In order to simplify this colorful mishmash, most colors denoting KPIs in a dashboard can simply be called onyx. The exceptions would be blue and black (two colors never found in onyx). But really, who uses those colors in a dashboard? And if you did, wouldn’t you call them sapphire and hematite?

Once I saw a dashboard without colors at all. Everything was in shades of gray – sorry, I mean pearl – on the 16.8 million color computer screen. I did not quite understand why no colors were used, but I was reminded of the following quote by Albert Schweitzer: An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while a pessimist sees only the red stoplight. . . The truly wise person is colorblind.

Given how some of the dashboards are used in the end by the business users, these wise persons sometimes seem not only colorblind, but completely blind to the colorful realities.

  • Gabriel Fuchs

    Gabriel has more than ten years of experience in all aspects of the business intelligence value chain. He has witnessed all the hype, seen technologies come and go, and observes that basics still surprisingly often rule in the business intelligence world. Gabriel’s somewhat ironic writings are based on his own personal experience and imagination, and do not reflect the situation at any particular company. 

    Gabriel is a renowned expert within strategic IT solutions, including business intelligence, performance management and business analytics. He has worked within a range of different industries and activities all over Europe, helping organizations align key operational activities with the strategic goals. His book, Dealing with Nasty Colleagues: The Art of Winning in Office Politics While Still Getting the Job Done, can be ordered at http://www.amazon.co.uk/. Gabriel can be reached at sgfuchs@bluewin.ch.

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