Vocalabs Newsletter: Quality Times

Issue
81

Theory and Practice of Dashboards

In This Issue


Theory and Practice of 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 probably requires having different dashboards for different functions within the company. That's sensible, though: 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. 

With careful attention to delivering just the information which is needed at the time when it is needed, dashboards can be a useful tool for business reporting. In the real world, too many designs fall far short.


Customer Experience Isn't the Only Thing

Customer experience is an important part of how companies differentiate themselves competitively. But it's not the only thing. There are some circumstances where it makes sense for a company to not care about how its customers are treated. For example:

  • In some customers' minds, poor customer experience means low prices. My favorite example these days is Spirit Airlines, a company which seems to delight in inflicting fees and inconvenience on its customers (though recently Spirit seems to be having a change of heart, possibly because of bad publicity). So if you are trying to stake out the market position of low-price leader, it may actually help you to make your customer experience worse.
  • If customers don't have a choice, then customer experience doesn't matter. Some of the lowest customer satisfaction scores are for cable TV companies, and it's not hard to see why: in most places you have only one real choice if you want cable (and increasingly, if you want high-speed Internet service), since the competitors don't have access to the physical infrastructure. So the cable incumbent doesn't need to invest in improving the customer experience to maintain its customer base.
  • When it's hard to switch to a competitor, it's possible to under-invest in the customer experience without losing too much business. Banks and mobile phone carriers are both industries where customers will often put up with terrible service because it's just too hard to change (or too expensive).

In all these cases, the company which provides a poor experience is relying on something else to keep customers coming: price, an effective monopoly, contractual commitments, etc.

But this can be a risky strategy. Subjecting customers to poor service builds up a reservoir of customer ill-will over time. If the market changes--or the company develops a bad enough reputation--it can be very expensive to repair the damage.

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