Dashboards suck. Big time. Why? Because the people who build them are not thinking about their purpose.
Let’s put together a list of what dashboards are not for:
- Showing you what’s going on
- Updating stakeholders on key metrics
- Marrying data from different sources
- Offering a “heads-up” view of the business
Yep, none of that. DOUBLE I’M ON MAURY POVICH AND YOU AIN’T THE FATHER SNAP.
Dashboards are 100% absolutely not at all in any way whatsoever about information. That’s what reports and meetings are for. Dashboards are for one thing and one thing only: action.
Let’s break this down into two separate views. First, we’ll think about why this is the case. Then, we’ll explore comparisons in other parts of our life. Got 5 minutes? Let’s do it.
Why dashboards aren’t about “information”
When I used to see comparisons between Google and Facebook’s engagement metrics, I wanted to stab myself in the brain. The thinking was that since people were spending more time and consuming more pageviews on Facebook that Google was being bested.
Looking at this claim in terms of purpose rather than metrics, we can see this means that both of these sites are successful (and if Facebook’s metrics just passed Google’s, it also shows that Google was a hell of a lot more successful at that point in time than Facebook, not the other way around). Why? Because Google’s sole mission (for search) is to send people AWAY. Facebook’s mission, on the other hand, was to get people to stay. So, if Facebook’s visits, session duration and pageviews are just passing Google, that means Facebook (at the time) had a very, very long way to go to best Google.
Regardless of who’s winning, which site breeds more productivity?
Remember the claim up there? People don’t know why they’re designing dashboards. Dashboards that are trying to give people the lay of the land, provide information, context and a wide view are not functioning properly. Dashboards built this way draw the user in, asking them to spend time clicking different views and tabs, taking mental notes, drawing comparisons, and figuring out whether or not everything is okay. The dashboard is pulling when it should be pushing. The measure of a good dashboard is its likeness to Google, not Facebook. Good dashboards put people to work.
Pushing isn’t exactly the right word. Dashboards should be shooting you out like a human cannonball toward the things you should be working on. Dashboards need immediacy, urgency, alerts, all screaming at you like wild banshees about specific parts of your business, site, social presence, etc. LOOK AT THIS RIGHT NOW OR YOU WILL PERISH. That is what dashboards are for. They are tools for tacticians to target their efforts, not for generalists to broaden their understanding.
How this looks in other places
Let’s take a look at dashboards elsewhere. Cars, planes, stuff like that, for example.
Now before you start picturing a 747 cockpit that looks remarkably like your corporate dashboards, let’s think about a car and build from there. In my car, my dashboard tells me some pretty basic things about my engine (tach, temperature), speed, and fuel. There may be some niceties like outside temperature, etc. I may have a GPS that is telling me where to go, too. And my dashboard has a bunch of unlit indicators about other things like tire pressure, oil levels, windshield fluid, airbag status, etc. etc. etc. Keyword: unlit.
The purpose of all of this is twofold: one is sort of like realtime reporting: I can indeed see some non-critical basics (that could become critical, like speed) when I’m not having to pay attention to a traffic situation or a more pressing matter. But the second purpose (the important one) is what I normally cannot see in the unlit area. Things that will come alive when and only when I need to know about them. My GPS tells me when to turn and shuts the hell up in-between. Sure, I can look at it, but that’s again in my downtime.
Can you imagine what driving would be like if all of these indicators were on and I had to check in on each one constantly to understand status and what I should do in response?
Graduating to the 747, we have a lot more going on, but again, almost everything is unlit or not intentionally drawing attention. If the pilot wants to get a swath of information about the plane’s status, he certainly can by looking around (just as we can by leaving our dashboard and getting into our analytics tools and other reports/meetings). But she’s looking around in his downtime. She’s not looking at 300 dials when taking off. She’s not looking at 300 dials when the engine is on fire, because when the engine is on fire, there is a HUGE amount of focus drawn to the exact dials and controls the pilot will need at that moment.
The plane is a lot like your business. This data is available. It’s sitting around. It’s being produced in reports. But mushing all of it together into a dashboard is not the right thing to do. Mushing all of these dials into a cockpit isn’t the right thing to do, either (it was necessary before today’s technology), which is precisely why most cockpits are starting to look more and more like our cars (a lot of the dials are unused or redundant and have been moved to an as-needed LCD in front of the pilots).
So, great dashboards are…
QUIET when things are not whacky. You look at them, don’t see anything special, and know you have some time to focus on a project you’ve been meaning to pay attention to, you can schedule a meeting to think through new ideas, or you go dig into your data more deeply to find opportunities. A quiet dashboard is a signal that you have the freedom to work on new priorities. All dashboards need a quiet, unlit capability.
LOUD AS HELL when things are whacky. When you log in or view them, the dashboards will tell you immediately that you need to cancel your meetings, hold your calls, order lunch in, and focus on the buzzing alarms and dials out of their tolerable ranges.
TAILORED to the people who are going to look at them. Have a report or meeting if you want/need/have the time to talk about other peoples’ lives and wider status. Your dashboard should be about your plane, not all air traffic over the pacific.
CONTEXTUAL to purpose. If you have a table that looks like the one below, your dashboard is a complete and utter failure:
Why? Because this is out of context, lumped together, and not actionable. Is the purpose of your paid search homogenously to attract new visitors? Is every keyword indicative of a user ready to convert? Should the conversion rate of social be compared to your SEO efforts? Everything on the dashboard should live in the context of purpose. You should have a page about audience attraction, a page about high-propensity converters, a page about amplification and content acceleration, a page about different audience segments and expected results. Then, when you look at the dashboard, you know specifically where you are deficient and maybe even what you need to do about it, not just what the conversion rate of your display campaign is (which is completely useless to anyone who can do anything about it, when presented at this level of granularity).
So, the next logical step is to share some good dashboards with you. If you’re interested in seeing the types of dashboards that actually cause action and keep information in context, leave a comment or contact me on twitter (@evanlapointe).