Data density: the right information at the right time

Mar 25, 2021
Ben Garvey
6
 min read

Ridgeline set out with a bold goal: to deliver sophisticated enterprise software with consumer-grade usability that solves the complex needs of the investment management industry. To keep that promise, our team of 225 engineers, technologists, and domain experts has to constantly answer an evolving set of ever-more challenging questions.

Many of these questions center around data. Ridgeline’s platform is built on a single source of truth: one, unified set of near real-time data across all the applications in the platform. We know how critical it is for our customers that data is accurate and accessible. So, how do we design for a user who needs to access mountains of data streaming in from a variety of sources for hours on end? Assuming we can accomplish that, how do we empower users to act on that data in a variety of ways that all have different dependencies? And how do we do it in a way that is cohesive, understandable, and scalable?

The core tenet that guides our solution to these questions is a focus on data density. While most people would interpret density to be cramming as many tables, cells, inputs, and metrics into one page as possible, we believe that data density is really about facilitating access to precisely the right information at the right time.

Yes, having everything on one page makes it viewable, but does it really make it useful? If everything on the screen looks important, then nothing looks important. In product design we call this noise: irrelevant information that can distract the user from what their main task is.

Three examples showing how color, size and proximity decrease noise.

Color, shape, size and proximity help assign importance and relationships to objects. The assignment helps the user navigate noise.

To decrease noise and increase usability, product designers at Ridgeline go behind the walls of data to think about the business needs driving the need for information.

For instance, which information is necessary to complete a certain task — placing a trade order requires fundamentally different data than creating a new portfolio strategy. Which information isn’t necessary? What’s the bare minimum requirement? What would the “above-and-beyond” version be?

As we answer these questions, we’re able to form actionable insights.

  • Our users need to consume, digest, and then act on constant streams of unstructured data.
  • They need the right data at the right times.
  • They value, above all else, efficiency.

As Ridgeline designers, we implement three major principles to support these insights.

1. Optimized workflows

One crucial limitation with many existing investment software systems is fragmentation.

Users must pull data from three or four different applications to accomplish a single objective because each application is a separate system. The result leaves the user constantly ‘alt-tabbing’ between apps; a usability nightmare that slows down business and fatigues the user.

Ridgeline believes users should be able to accomplish their daily goals in one dedicated workspace. One that is optimized for major objectives and does not hinder access to secondary and tertiary tasks.

To design an optimized workspace like this, Ridgeline places an emphasis on learning true user behavior. Our first six customers collaborate with us and provide feedback on our products as part of our Design Partner Program. We’ve also hired a deep bench of industry and domain experts who are knowledgeable about the investment manager experience. This combination allows us to truly understand our users’ workflows and to design purposefully for them.

For example, a portfolio manager might be reviewing a portfolio and realize that they need to create an order to gain exposure to a certain equity. They shouldn’t need to abandon the current page and navigate a cluttered desktop to achieve this. With Ridgeline, the task, creating the order, can be accomplished without leaving the page of the primary objective, auditing the portfolio.

To accomplish this, we are building quick order functionality that can be accessed without navigating away from the current page. This user-centered approach caters to popular workflows while still allowing quick access to other actions, which enhances efficiency.

Optimized workflows animation.

2. Layered information

Balancing the need for necessary information against the importance of a clean, goal-oriented interface is always top of mind for the design team.

To help find this balance, one solution we will soon employ is the concept of layered information.

Often, an asset manager will look at a large batch of information — it could include portfolios, orders, reports, or clients — and then select certain types of information to explore in depth.

We recognize that certain data is critical to scan the page and make the decision to dive deeper. Once that decision has been made, different data is required to make the next decision, whether that be diving still deeper, acting, or simply returning to the previous page.

The key is providing the right data at the right time. Too little data at any given step and the asset manager wastes time searching for the necessary information before making a decision. Too much data at any given step can distract and fatigue the asset manager, resulting in inefficiencies.

Layered information lets the user control the amount of data needed. Layer 1 is an overview that allows the user to quickly scan and determine what needs immediate attention (individual portfolios, orders, etc.). Layer 2 provides more depth on each individual piece and offers the ability to act on that information. In many areas, Layers 3, 4 and 5 are necessary.

Layered information animation.

Of course, these layers need to be obvious and accessible to the user, which leads to our third guiding principle: cohesive design.

3. Cohesive design

Powerful tools take time to master. Whether it’s a car, a table saw, or software, there is a learning curve before a tool becomes effective. Once people take the time to master a complex tool, the benefits of its use surpass those of a more simple counterpart.

Investment managers (and, all of us, really) don’t have the time to fumble through complex software. They need to serve their clients. At the same time, complex software makes it easier to achieve the same goal: serving their clients.

Cohesive design is the key to solving this catch-22. This principle shortens the learning curve, allowing a beginner to find information quickly in a complex system without decreasing an expert’s ability to leverage the same system for more complicated needs. We’ve talked about what we’ve done to implement data density for experts; we also make it work for new adopters.

Cohesive design creates an interface that is predictable and trustworthy. We foster predictability and trust by creating visual and interaction patterns. In design, patterns are repeatable steps or visual indicators that a user can learn and rely on throughout the app.

The following are some examples of cohesive design in Ridgeline:

  • Colors have thoughtful, industry-defined meanings that users already know (blue means buy, red means sell) or can learn quickly. Users are able to scan pages and understand the meanings of colors without stopping to second-guess themselves.
Cohesive design animation.
  • Buttons explicitly state their function so that there aren’t surprises after clicking. Users know when an action will further their primary objective or take them to a secondary objective.
  • Aggregate pages are consistent across the application. Whether the subject is a portfolio, a trade order, a client, or a report, users will understand how to navigate the page.

Data density guides Ridgeline’s approach to designing a complex, usable platform. Cohesive design ensures that it can be learned by everyone.

One key differentiator of the Ridgeline platform is how it pulls different data sources into a cohesive unit. The Ridgeline Design Team optimizes this breakthrough by presenting that data in a way that is accessible, digestible and actionable. The resulting experience allows users to put information to work quicker than ever, so they can stay focused on driving value for their firm and their clients.

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