In the last couple of posts, we’ve written about the challenges of providing information for decision-making. From collecting data to converting the data to information that tells a story, it’s all about making sure that we’re providing decision-makers, including ourselves, with what is necessary to make solid, fact-based decisions. But there is one more variable we need to consider: what is the best way to communicate that information?
The channels used for communicating, as well as the form and format in which the information is presented, influence both the decision-maker and the decision. Besides concerning ourselves with the ‘what’ we need to consider the ‘how.’ How can we present the information in a way that assures timely receipt and accurate interpretation?
If you’re like me, you receive and send information for decision-making in lots of ways: emails, reports, presentations and meetings. While each of these can be effective, in the aggregate we find ourselves bombarded with information from all directions. While some of the information is useful and relevant, some is not. Some is clear and well-presented while some is fuzzy and ambiguous. Some clearly identifies what action is required and some is just ‘FYI.’ Figuring out what information is significant and what is just ‘noise’ is not only time-consuming; the noise can often drown out what is really important.
As with any problem, recognizing that there is a problem is the first step. But if your job is about providing information how can you reduce the quantity, increase the quality and truly make information a tool for decision making?
Think about one decision that you need to make on a regular basis. Now close your eyes and imagine that the all the critical information you need to make that decision is in one place and, at a glance, you have what you need to understand the situation and make your decision. In your mind’s eye you are probably envisioning a dashboard. And you’re not alone. It seems like everyone is asking for dashboards these days. But just as throwing a bunch of ingredients in a pot does not always make a tasty dinner, jamming a bunch of information on a page does not necessarily make for a good dashboard.
A dashboard is essentially a mechanism for providing a lot of information in a single place. It contains the dials and indicators that provide information about what is happening and where decisions or actions are required to either get things on track or keep them on track. Consider the dashboard in your car – it’s a single location where you can quickly get information about most everything you need to know to operate and control your car when you’re on the road. Through the windshield you can see where you’re going and any obstacles or hazards in your way, the speedometer helps you control your speed, the odometer can tell you how far you’ve gone. There are also a variety of indicators that light up to indicate when corrective action is needed like low oil pressure, or that your engine is overheating. While there may be a lot of other things going on in and around the car, the instrumentation on the dashboard is designed to show you only those things that are important or ‘key indicators’ that are most critical to the operation of the car. There are a lot of other things it could tell you, but it sticks to those things that count.
In addition to showing you what’s most important, each of the dials and indicators has a corresponding set of decisions or actions associated with them. If the speedometer indicates that you’re going too fast, you lighten up on the gas pedal. If the oil pressure light comes on, you pull off the road and turn off the engine. If the ‘check engine’ light comes on you check your bank balance and call your mechanic….
Just as a lot of thought goes into designing the dashboard in a car, there are important considerations that go into designing a dashboard report. First and foremost, you need to remember that one size does not fit all. A number of years ago I had an opportunity to ‘fly’ a commercial jet in a simulator. The first thing that struck me as I sat in the pilot’s seat was the mass of instrumentation on the dashboard – nothing like the dashboard in my car. Why? Because flying a plane is different than driving a car – a pilot makes different decisions than a driver hence different information is needed to inform those decisions. Likewise, managing a corporation or a division is different than managing a project. As long as the decisions are different, the dashboard needs to be different.
Once you’ve identified the audience for your dashboard you need to understand both the decisions that are being made and what key indicators would suggest that action is required. If you are designing a dashboard for a group of executives managing a project portfolio, keep in mind that managing a portfolio is about managing a set of investments. The decision-makers need to know what those investments are, how they are performing and make decisions about reallocating or reprioritizing those investments to meet the organization’s goals for realizing return on those investments. In this case your dashboard may include things like the performance of different categories or types of investments (projects), how much money is being spent in different categories of investments, and what return you are getting from the investments already made. If you’re designing a dashboard for the members of the project team, your dashboard is going to be more focused on the tactical items that help the team member prioritize and focus their work – what is overdue, what needs to get done today or this week, reminders about upcoming events or milestones.
Your target audience can also tell you a lot about the best way to present the information. Typically we like to use graphs and colors in dashboards because one picture, colored dot, or downward facing arrow can convey a lot of information in a small space. But as nifty as graphics and colors are, they may not be informational to the user. For example, in the team member’s dashboard a graph showing the number of their overdue tasks by week since the beginning of the project is not as useful as a short list of the overdue tasks for this week.
You also want to be mindful of how you use the space on the page. The best dashboards are easy to read and use the white space on the page to clearly separate the information so that any given indicator can be located and read quickly. You also shouldn’t need a magnifying glass to read a list or the labels on a graph – just because the software you use to generate your chart allows you to set the font size on your labels to 2 point tiny-type, doesn’t mean that you should use it.
Last but not least, don’t forget that for many decision-makers more detail may be needed to make a well informed decision. Here the dashboard provides the launching off point, but the underlying detail needs to be as readily available as the dashboard. I’m very partial to dashboards and reports that provide the ability to ‘drill through’ into more detailed information. For example, if I’m managing a portfolio of projects and one of my investment categories within that portfolio is not performing well, I might want to drill through to see which projects are contributing to the problem and why. What was important on the dashboard was recognizing that action is needed, but the detail needed to decide what that action is going to be is also readily available. It’s really like that ‘check engine’ light in your car – if it goes on you know you need to do something, but what that something is may require further action. On the flip side, if the light stays off you can just ignore it.
Dashboards are a great way to help reduce the ‘noise’ and help individuals focus on the information that really matters most. If you’re designing and building dashboards, you’ll probably need to go through a few iterations with your stakeholders but the results are well worth the effort. Just remember – NO TINY-TYPE!