Thinking Hard on Dashboards
By: Tom Pokorney
Business dashboard reporting is a wonderfully attractive concept. Reams of complex business data spanning all different kinds of domains presented in elegant and tidy visuals that convey insight and empower instant decision-making. In other words, arguably, magic. Simplification of complicated topics via business dashboards is a great way to be able to glance at the performance of a key indicator and react to its behavior. But we know better. Indeed, the frequent proclamations from a few years ago of big data being the answer to life’s problems have been met today by equally frequent cautionary statements about the humility and contextual awareness that still must accompany any decent attempt at problem-solving based on quantitative information. I’m encouraged by this retreat to modesty and skepticism in the midst of being bombarded by tools professing to have all the answers. To that end, I’ll offer a few things to be mindful of when dealing with business dashboard visuals.
I’ll be the first to admit it: it feels pretty awesome to be in the presence of a well-designed dashboard (ideally, as you enter an office or lobby). The dashboards convey a comforting sense of certainty and technical modernity, and I feel like I’m Tony Stark reading his head-up display inside the Mark IV suit. Look beyond the sleekness of the visuals, and be mindful of the information being presented to you and how it truly can help inform your decision-making. In other words, make sure that what is being presented to you relates directly to the goals of your business or main objective.
In his book “The Black Swan,” philosophical essayist Nassim Taleb argues that we are often disadvantaged by exposing ourselves to an overabundance of information, arguing that “ideas are sticky … once we produce a theory, we are not likely to change our minds.” Dashboards invite theorizing often based on knee-jerk reactions to “noisy” metrics that may not be worthy foundations for drawing real conclusions. Does a 15 percent change in a performance indicator from one 15-minute window to the next warrant a change? It’s critical that a dashboard be limited to metrics that are true indicators of business performance. Properly identifying these things is an ongoing process that will involve re-evaluation and taking the time to properly think about the problem that is trying to be solved. It’s important to think about when to examine a piece of information as much as it is to know when to overlook it.
I feel the same tug every time I’m tasked with visualizing data: “How cool would it be to have this? What if we had that? I’m pretty sure I could make this work!” It usually begins as a demonstration of my technical abilities (or lack thereof) until I remember to ask myself the important question: so what? How is this information going to inform decision-making? How is this information going to inform a productive conversation? Dashboard visuals can be influenced by a broad committee of people with different backgrounds—make sure that final product is something that is in line with the priorities of the business so that “so what?” will have a clear answer.
Dashboards can be a great way of getting a quick glance at information relevant to the success of your business, and often are just that. But be careful not to treat a dashboard as a single source of truth simply because it operates in the sphere of “analytics.” Nuance and a broader understanding of context will always remain useful guides when exploring the implications of visualizations of quantitative information.