It’s a simple question – Can your business user take managerial action based on your dashboard? Of course, you say “yes” without hesitation, but let’s slow down and examine what makes a business dashboard truly actionable.

Analytics guru and dashboard afficionado, Avinash Kaushik, author of the excellent book, Web Analytics: An Hour a Day had a recent blog posting titled The Action Dashboard: An Alternative to Crappy Dashboards.

Avinash comments that most dashboards are, well, crappy. And the reason why is that they are “data pukes that provide little in terms of context and even less in terms of actionable value”.

What makes a “data puke”?

He shows the following screen as an example:

data puke dashboard

Looking at this dashboard example, one may be tempted to think that we call this particular dashboard a “data puke” because of its content – i.e. lots of data heavy, text-based portlets.

However, Avinash makes the excellent point that slick, eye-candy type dashboards can also be data pukes. It’s not just text-heavy presentations that make for data pukes.

Excel style dashboard

I wanted to point the above out purely because of a common feature of 80% of Web Analytics Dashboards, in excel with a billion tabs to look through. This is not a dashboard, it is the result of a massive sum of money paid to a Consultant who is trying to impress you with his / her excel skills – without actually telling you anything.

Avinash goes on to say why he thinks most business dashboards “stink”:

Why is this so? All the above efforts are well intentioned, took lots of honest work and probably took months to put together. So why?

Here are some hidden (corrosive) reasons why most dashboards tend to stink when it comes to helping the Executive make any decisions:

They leave the interpretation to the Executive (/ customer / requestor / other Squirrels). This is a fatal flaw because most dashboards are highly aggregated views of any KPI and are missing all the nuance and analysis (that only you as Ms. Ninja have, and you don’t go with dashboard).

Most Executives actually want insights / action recommendations but they don’t trust the Squirrels / Ninjas / VP’s / Data Providers. So they ask for numbers. We dutifully cram as many of them on to a A4 size paper in 3 size font and send it along with a magnifying glass.

Most Squirrels / Ninjas live in a silo. Going out to collect enough tribal knowledge to actually know what is going on to then make recommendations from the data is not something that we do, nor are we encouraged by our Executives or our organization structures. This incentivizes data pukeing.

Often dashboard creators tend to be “outsiders” (Consultants, Experts etc) and they often don’t have deep practitioner experience that would allow them to understand the human / “below the surface” issues like the above three. That leads non-Practitioners to make the common mistakes like creating the above dashboards.

So does Avinash provide real advice as to how to avoid data pukes and create actionable dashboards? He sure does.

If you are on the front page of the Dashboard Spy blog, you may have to click on the following “Read More” link to see Avinash’s advice for “Action Dashboards”.

Of course you’ll want to read the Avinash blog post and examine the details, but let me leak the punchline:

My attempt at solving this problem was to try and attack it from a human psychology perspective: How can I create a “dashboard” that will incent the right behavior from the Squirrels / Ninjas while giving Executives the information they need to make decisions (rather than engaging in a bitchfest which is the typical outcome).

Recommendation #1 was to move to a Critical Few philosophy for Executive reporting: Only report the three or five (at most!) metrics that define success for the whole business. Kill all the ancillary metrics that were nice to know (and my kill I mean let lower levels worry about it).

Recommendation #2 was my humble, admittedly ugly, attempt at a “Action Dashboard”:

Avinash Action Dashboard - 4 Quadrants for Actionability

Each quadrant representing a solution to a human problem that lead to crappy dashboards.
(Apologies for having to redact some of the data above, to protect the innocent.)

Let me walk you through it.

First very up top a clear identification of what the Critical Few metric was, who was responsible for that metric from a business perspective (translate into “head on the line”) and who was responsible for the analysis.

Also note the little red dot. That here indicated trouble. It can have two other colors, yellow for don’t fire anyone yet but get ready and green for send someone a big hug and a box of chocolates. Next. . . .

The first quadrant (the graphic) shows the trend for the metric. Ideally segmented (as is the case here, cart abandonment is illustrated for four key customer segments).

This quadrant is to satiate Executive curiosity that you know what you are doing, it will be glossed over (and that’s good!).

The second quadrant (Key Trends & Insights) is to add value by interpreting the trends and adding context. It says there that some things are up or down (in english :), and it also warns which data might be bad etc. You are starting to do your job here.

This quadrant is the one that Executives will read a lot initially, over time they will gain confidence in you, they will love that you share context (hello Ninja!), over time they will gloss over it (a good thing).

The third quadrant, clockwise, (Actions / Steps To Take) is force the shy Web Analyst to get out and talk to Marketers, Website Owners, VP’s, Whomever it takes to get all the tribal knowledge, identify root cause for the trends in the metric and recommend solid action to take. The Analyst will rarely be able to do this by themselves. It will require human contact with others, it will require conversations, it will mean identifying solutions collaboratively. It is a fantastic opportunity to become smart about the business.

This quadrant is key to driving action. No longer do you leave things to interpretation or let’s blame people etc. You are recommending what actually needs to get done. Your Executives will kiss you and over time this is the only quadrant they’ll read. It will also mean that monthly meetings will move from bitch fests to deciding who does what. Amen!

The fourth quadrant, (Impact on Company/Customer) exists in case it is not clear to the Executives why they need to take action (listen to poor old you the lowly Analyst). I feel it is the key thing missing from any dashboard, they are normally missing the kick in the rear end and this quadrant delivers it. It is the answer to this question: “As a result of this trend (up or down) what was the impact on the company and its customers”. It also forces you, Marketer / Analyst, to do hard work to estimate the impact and put it on paper.

This is the killer quadrant, if nothing else drives action this will, knowing exactly how much money was lost, how many customers were pissed, how much opportunity was wasted. Now when they ignore you they do that at their own peril and with their butt on the line. Trust me action you recommend will be taken.

Here is an Action Dashboard template suggested by Avinash and used to arrive at the example dashboard shown above:

action dashboard template

Check his post for a detailed explanation of this “action dashboard” approach.

Tags: Actionable Dashboards, Avinash Kaushik