The Customer Service Survey

My Dashboard Pet Peeve

by Peter Leppik on Fri, 2014-07-18 18:10

I have a pet peeve about business dashboards.

Dashboards are great in theory. The idea is to present the most important information about the business in a single display so you can see at a glance how it's performing and whether action is required. Besides, jet planes and sports cars have dashboards, and those things are fast and cool. Everyone wants to be fast and cool!

In reality, though, most business dashboards are a mess. A quick Google search for business dashboard designs reveals very few which clearly communicate critical information at a glance.

Instead, you find example after example after example after example after example which is too cluttered, fails to communicate useful information, and doesn't differentiate between urgent, important, and irrelevant information. I didn't have to look far for those bad examples, either: I literally just took the top search results.

Based on what I've seen, the typical business dashboard looks like the company's Access database got drunk and vomited PowerPoint all over the screen.

As I see, there are two key problems with the way business dashboards are implemented in practice:

First, there's not enough attention given to what's most important. As a result, most dashboards have too much information displayed and it becomes difficult to figure out what to pay attention to.

This data-minimization problem is hard. Even a modest size company has dozens, perhaps hundreds, of pieces of information which are important to the day-to-day management of the business. While not everyone cares about everything, everything is important to someone. So the impulse to consolidate everything into a single view inevitably leads to a display which includes a dizzying array of numbers, charts, and graphical blobs.

Second, the concept of a "dashboard" isn't actually all that relevant to most parts of a business. The whole purpose of making critical information available at a glance is to enable immediate action, meaning within a few seconds. In the business world, "extremely urgent" usually means a decision is needed within a few hours, not seconds. You have time to pause and digest the information before taking action.

That said, there are few places where immediate action is required. For example, a contact center has to ensure enough people are on the phones at all times to keep the wait time down. In these situations, a dashboard is entirely appropriate.

But the idea of an executive watching every tick of a company dashboard and steering the company second-by-second is absurd. I get that driving a sports car or flying a jet is fun and work is, well, work. But you will never manage a company the way you drive a car. Not going to happen.

But for better or worse, the idea of a business dashboard has resonance and dashboards are likely to be around for a while.

To make a dashboard useful and effective, probably the most important thing is to severely restrict what's included. Think about your car. Your car's dashboard probably displays just a few pieces of information: speed, fuel, the time, miles traveled, and maybe temperature and oil pressure. Plus there's a bunch of lights which turn on if something goes wrong. A business dashboard should be limited to just a handful (3-4) pieces of information which are most important, and maybe some alerts for other things which need urgent attention. This might require having different dashboards for different functions within the company--on the other hand, it would be silly to give the pilot and the flight attendants the same flight instruments.

The other element in useful dashboards is timing. If the data doesn't require minute-by-minute action, then having real-time displays serves little purpose. In fact, it might become a distraction if people get too focused on every little blip and wobble. Instead, match the pace of data delivery to the actions required. For example, a daily dashboard pushed out via e-mail, with alerts and notifications if something needs attention during the day. 

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