I'm excited about the power of a well created dashboard. It is a thing of beauty and a source of immense joy.
Oh, and of course a critical element for any company's path to glory.
Dashboards are every where, we will look at a lot of them in this post and they are all digital. So let's start with one that you might not typically bump into.
Here's a great dashboard, for the Museum of Art… take a minute to ponder it…
Isn't it pretty awesome?
It provides a brief snapshot of the entire business. From 3rd grader attendance to new artworks on view to expenses to (hurray!) digital performance. Comprehensive, yet not too much. It also handy explanations of the metrics, with key context where necessary.
I'm sure the analyst in you (like me!) is yearning for some segmentation, or at least for some comparisons of current performance to past performance for context. Or something else.
But kill that thought for a moment and marvel at what it actually as and how good it is. Just imagine how useful it would be in a non-analytical environment like a museum. Think of how easily it would raise the right questions, which, when answered, would lead to more informed decisions.
In our world of digital analytics often these things are called dashboards…
I had to shrink the size to make it fit the available screen, but even if you saw it at full glorious resolution, I'm sure you'll very quickly come to the conclusion that this is just a data puke. Yes, it does summarize data from many reports into one. But think of what's on it for a moment. Can you understand anything except the cursory superficial information? And now, pull back. Go three levels, or five, inside the organization to the Senior Leadership, would they get anything out of this? I do mean, *anything*?
This is our challenge. Somewhere along the way we've lost our way. Dashboards are no longer thoughtfully processed analysis of data relevant to business goals with an included summary of recommended actions. They are data pukes. And data pukes are not dashboards. They are data pukes.
And I don't want you to think that the problem is that the above is a dashboard in a digital analytics tool and has just two graphs. Here's another example:
Those of you who've read Web Analytics 2.0 will recognize that this dashboard is built off the example I share in the CD that comes with the book. So, I inspired one one above. Still a data puke. Prettier for sure (copy the excel version that's on the CD, it's prettier). Look it has things I recommend: trended segments (OMG, OMG!) and sparklines (with YOY and MOM comparisons!). That helps for sure. But because the dashboard above is missing a critical column on the right (you'll find it on the CD version), this dashboard won't move the senior-most leaders in the company into data influenced actions.
Actions. The thing that we don't think hard enough about.
The Core Problem: The Failure of Just Summarizing Performance.
I humbly believe the challenge is that in a world of too much data, with lots more on the way, there is a deep desire amongst executives to get "summarize data," to get "just a snapshot," or to get the "top-line view." This is understandable of course.
But this summarization, snapshoting and toplining on your part does not actually change the business because of one foundational problem:
People who are closest to the data, the complexity, who've actually done lots of great analysis, are only providing data. They don't provide insights and recommendations.
People who are receiving the summarized snapshot top-lined have zero capacity to understand the complexity, will never actually do analysis and hence are in no position to know what to do with the summarized snapshot they see.
The end result? Nothing.
Standstill. Gut based decision making. No real appreciation of the delicious opportunity in front of every single company on the planet right now to have a huger impact with data.
So what's missing from this picture that will transform numbers into action?
I believe the solution is multi-fold (and when is it not? : )). We need to stop calling everything a dashboard. We need to create two categories of dashboards. For both categories, especially the valuable second kind of dashboards, we need words – lots of words and way fewer numbers.
Be aware that the implication of that last part I'm recommending is that you are going to become a lot more influential, and indispensable, to your organization. Not everyone is ready for that, but if you are this is going to be a fun ride!
The Solution: Text (Wisdom).
Allow me to visualize the problem above, and leverage that visualization to present the solution.
In order to make smart decisions about the data you need four things. You need access to data, the ability to analyze (slice, dice, drill-up, drill-down, drill-around) interesting data points that your performance throws up, ability to understand what caused the performance (often by understanding who did, what and where in other parts of the organization), and the power to make decisions.
In a perfect world if everyone in the organization had access to all the data, the analytical skills to analyze what the initial blush of data says, the time to deep dive to find the causal factors related to good or bad performance, and take action on the insights, nirvana would exist.
It does not because of this challenge… there is a massive asymmetry between people how have access to data (you?), data analysis skills (you? someone else?), and the decision makers who have the power to take action…
This becomes even more pronounced as you go up the chain of command.
As you might have guessed, you are at the very right of the above visual, with most access to data, the ability to analyze it (inshallah!) and the organizational relationships to marry with the analytical ability to find causal factors. Your CXOs are at the far right, very little of the three things you have (because they have other responsibilities, and also because they are paying you!).
Everyone else falls somewhere in between.
Your immediate cluster direct or indirect leaders have some ability to look over the data, little ability to do analysis, but a ton of ability to understand causal factors. If only they got something that was not a data puke and had enough starting points (sounds like a dashboard, but wait!). These are your Directors, your owners of the Paid Search strategy, and other functional leaders.
The VPs of Marketing, Advertising, Product, Public Relations, Human Resources etc., have none of one or two, they have some of three (causal factors, after all they set direction and make decisions). The CXOs have very little of all three factors. But they have the power to make decisions and get people to take action.
So why would we create a dashboard like this one for our VPs or even our Directors…
Why would the above dashboard, even if you spent money prettifying it, deliver magical business results?
They don't have an ability to analyze the data, should anything pique their interest, and neither will they ever want access to the contextual data to do a… oh, wait, why did x happen, or I wonder if z is the reason Average Order Value is $356.
The cool part is that you have the ability to do that. Hence your CXOs should definitely not get a data puke like the one above. They should get a handful of numbers/charts (ideally identified upfront by the Digital Marketing and Measurement Model – DMMM) and they should get your brain in a box. I mean, they should get lots of words in English from you and not numbers. The words in English should ideally cover three things.
Not a repetition of what the data already says. (As you can see graph one shows that visits in Sept. are down by 4%. They can see it, the graph is right there!!) Rather, what caused graph one to be up or down – the reasons for the performance identified by your analysis and causal factors.
2. Recommendations for Action.
What action should the CXO take? These will sound like: Metric x is down because of our inability to take advantage of trend y and hence I recommend we do z. Or: We missed our target for customer satisfaction because our desktop website performs horribly on mobile platforms hence we should create a mobile friendly website. Or: While revenue is up by 48% profits have plunged by 80% because of our aggressive shift from to Cost Per Click as the God metric, this has brought increased sales of our loss leading products. The problem is further compounded by our reliance on last-click conversion tracking. I recommend a shift to Profit Per Click and Avinash Kaushik's custom attribution model. English. Your insights. The so what based on data you've summarized and snapshotted.
3. Business Impact.
What will be the impact on the business if the CXO accepts your recommendation and the business takes action? I almost never see this. A small part of the problem is that Analysts often don't have the skills to compute impact of the recommended actions. A bigger part is that it is actually quite a bit of effort to compute impact. But, what better way to create a sense of urgency than tell the CXO what the expected outcome will be if they do based on your insights and recommended actions?
Your dashboard should have some data, but what it really needs are three sections: Insights, Actions, Business Impact. IABI.
The Recommended New Normal.
In-order to win, you and I and our peers are going to have to make a substantial change to our current approach.
For the first layer of our clients we are going to have to stop creating dashboards. Actually, we don't really create dashboards for them strictly speaking so we are simply going to have to stop calling them that. For our Directors, Marketing Owners, Campaign Budget Holders, and others in our immediate vicinity, people who have clearly defined siloed responsibilities to make tactical decisions, we are going to create customized data pukes. Let's call them CDP because it sounds better.
They don't have time to go get all the data, but they have the desire to analyze a bit, drill-down a bit, poke and prod. Our customized data pukes, CDPs, can come directly from our digital analytics tools (this will be important because our actual dashboards won't).
This is a nicely customized data puke for our Ecommerce and Customer Retention team.
A great summary of performance with some trends. Contains zero Insights, Actions, or Business Impact. But that is ok. These people know how to take it from a customized data puke, CDP, to getting insights that drive action which will have a business impact.
Just don't call it a dashboard from now on. That is reserved for outputs where you will have IABI.
Here's a CDP for our Real Time Site Optimization Team…
Their sleeves are rolled up, they are on the stand-by to take real time action. Give them a CDP and get out of their way. They can bother you every other week or so to tweak x or y about the CDP. That is fantastic.
You are not telling them what to do, or what you found. You are just acting as a glorified report writer. (They are much cheaper than you, so get a couple if your org is decent sized.)
You can also create CDPs using Google Analytics/Adobe/WebTrends or your favorite BFF. For example, this post Google Analytics Custom Reports: Paid Search Campaigns Analysis, has three great CDPs for your Paid Search team. Like this one…
They can get a summary view of the Paid Search performance, and also drill-down and find deeper insights by themselves. The downloadable link for the above CDP is this one: http://zqi.me/ake2eppc You can find the others in the post.
Just don't call CDPs dashboards. You are not delivering anything beyond data (none of your insights, and hence no actions or business impact either). There should be no expectation that just providing CDP will change the business. It won't. You need someone at the other end to do the IABI.
[I've used the phrase customized data pukes lovingly here. I do not think unwell of them, you'll find plenty, what I now call CDPs, on this blog. And in large organizations there are lots of people and layers who just need CDPs. They are of value. In most small and medium sized organizations you don't need CDPs because the size, you can directly go to strategic dashboards.]
The Tactical Dashboard.
For our VPs (or high enough equivalent in your company, in companies where everyone is a VP this might be the Executive Vice President or some such important title), we will deliver a tactical dashboard.
It will have an aggregated overview of performance at the aforementioned VP/EVP level (with some context about overall business performance). The data presented in tables or charts will be segmented. Elements presented will be trended over time. Ideally also indexed against a previously agreed upon target for the key performance indicator (KPI).
You'll always include your insights. (Please scroll back up and see what constitutes an insight. Thank you.) You'll include some initial recommendations for action – they'll have a lot of context to come up with others based on your insights. For your recommendations, you'll include impact.
We'll look at some examples below. But our new normal picture now looks like this…
Each stakeholder getting exactly what they want with some of what they need to be successful. It is important to point out that tactical dashboards can't be created inside Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics or IBM or whatever
Which brings us to the last one.
The Strategic Dashboard.
This sexy thing has similar elements as the tactical dashboard, except the altitude is different (full business, end-to-end, performance view on KPIs agreed upon in advance using the DMMM) and you should bring the full force of your brilliance into play by over-indexing on the English words. I mean, identifying specific insights which lead into the recommended actions with a clearly computed business impact.
In fact if 50% of your dashboard is just words in English, that is fantastic. Your value will not come from being the deliverer of data. It will come from being a knowledgeable person about what to do with the data, what actions to take.
The glorious part of the strategic dashboard is that when presented the IABI are so enchanting that the entire meeting becomes a discussion about the actions rather than an argument about the data.
That is how you know you are winning.
Here's the fully flushed out visual that represents the new normal…
Three clearly defined offerings from you. CDPs, tactical and strategic dashboards.
Notice that both visuals are a continuum. Nothing in this post implies that CDPs won't have any insights or that tactical dashboards won't have complex business impact computations. There are lots of unique situations in the world, you'll adapt my recommendations as they best fit your environment.
But it should be crystal-clear that as you go from left to right there is a big shift that takes place. The shift is from providing data to providing actions and impact. The shift is in the scale of value you directly add. The shift, massive, is in data being sent around and people feeling a vague sense of happiness to data being actually used to improve the business (for profit or non).
And all from how much English you have in the output. Pretty darn crazy, right?
Tactical and Strategic Dashboard Elements: Examples, Inspiration.
All of my dashboards that you might find helpful have business confidential data so I can't share those as is. But in this section I want to share a collection of public dashboards, or examples of work submitted by students of Market Motive Web Analytics Coached Course. Each student, to earn the certification, has to submit two dissertations – comprehensive analysis of two websites (one ecommerce and one non-ecommerce). We teach the students how to create great dashboards, of course (!), and I'll share some of their work.
So guess what this is? Tactical or strategic dashboard? Think back to the definitions above.
It presents a mixed collection of website performance, it is not specific to anyone. Big numbers are not segmented or trended. So it is a tactical…. strategic…. dash… no, you are right. It is a CDP. How smart of you!
Be very wary of calling the above a dashboard. It might help someone feel good there is data, but it is such a generic slather of things, it helps no one. Additionally there are no words with IABI (impact, action, business impact), hence it is uniquely useless. Expect this from your web analytics tools. Good for CDPs. Not good for dashboards, as we've defined in this post. An exception might be if you leverage some apps, like Google Analytics Apps and do the work required to meet our definitions above.
Here is an excerpt from a tactical dashboard… this one focused quite heavily on the VP of Marketing for the digital business with a big budget for Search.
It will be difficult for the VP to know enough, even from your segmented trends and KPIs, what happened that caused the data to move in the way that it did. In the Analysis section (in this post we've called it Insights), the Analyst clearly provides hidden causal factors. Then she takes it to the next level and provides recommendations that are specific and rank ordered (from the most important to the least important).
The VP will look at the data, understand some of it, not know why stuff is happening, read the analysis, ask some questions and quickly move the meeting to discussing who is going to be assigned which recommendation.
The only part that is missing, not uncommon in tactical dashboards, is the impact of each recommendation. For example if we implement SEO strategies for Ohio Health Care and Ohio Health Insurance keywords, what outcomes can we expect? How many more visits/visitors? How many more micro outcomes? How much more profit?
Here's a complete tactical dashboard for a VP of Onsite Engagement who might love to see more data and trends. We give him what he wants, and on the top right, what he really needs. : )
Please click on the image to get a higher resolution version, it is well worth your review.
Along with other things in the layout, also notice the red minus icons and the green plus icons. Another subtle and important way to quickly show performance (ideally against a target). The recommendations are again specific. They do allude to what the possible impact might be, though it would be better if it was specifically computed.
Here is an excerpted version of a strategic dashboard, but to a small business owner who is still at a stage where they are trying to survive and thrive. There is a lot of detail, perhaps too much, but it would not be difficult for the business owner to be attracted to your findings, in English, and your recommendations, in English. They won't spend too much time obsessing about your Big Data, : ), and charts and tables.
When you go into this type of territory, always, always, always, rank order things. Don't use bullets like above, use a numbered list – with the highest insight and most impactful recommendation first. This is your gift to them. Remember they don't have access to all the data, you do, and they don't have the skills to do the analysis, you do. We are solving for your brain and brilliance to go with the data. That is the magical part.
The next example is a complete tactical dashboard. It is only focused on one thing, Economic Value. It leverages the assisted conversions report from Google Analytics, and includes a module of the distribution of macro and micro-outcomes. The yummy part I wanted you to look at (beyond all the underlining!) are the sections on analysis, recommendations and impact on the business.
Please click on the image above to see a higher resolution version. You'll find it to be full of ideas you can use.
Our next example, by Kevin Jackson, is one that demonstrates the above approach, but applies it to a strategic dashboard. Among other things, notice how the altitude changes, the KPIs are strategic and the use of business goals.
Delivered to a CXO. Covers the complete end-to-end picture of the business (non-ecommerce in this case) by showing KPIs for acquisition, behavior and outcomes. Quick performance overview on top (vs. trend and target). The part we want to learn from is on the left. Insights. Recommendations. Business Impact!
Please click on the image above for a higher resolution version.
The CXO now has the full benefit from your analysis, along with seeing key data. They also will have a sense of urgency, based on the $362,000 economic value increase computed by you, to take action.
I cannot underscore how critical computing business impact is. Without it, you are simply showing x happened in the past so do more. You are not really showing I've looked at what will likely happen if you do y by looking at the past, understanding current business plans and taking into account market conditions. The best Analysts are very, very good at this.
Our last example is another strategic dashboard, by Christopher Eddy. Covers acquisition, behavior and outcomes. Trends. Core KPIs (including competitive intelligence). Segmented performance views. All on one page, clean.
I've hidden the IABI, but hopefully the above image (click for a higher resolution version) will serve as a handy reminder of what is expected of you in each section.
In each example we are, to repeat myself again, sorry, I am trying to push you out of your comfort zone of reporting data by summarizing it into pretty graphs and tables. I'm trying to push you out of your office. I'm trying to push you to, like the best analysts out there, get very good at computing business impact (put your money where your mouth is). I'm trying to push you in to a role where you will be seen as a key business strategist and not just a business analyst.
If you do that, and use as much English as numbers on your tactical and strategic dashboards, your business will shift slowly over time to being data driven, it will be richer, that's going to flow down to you! Oh, and imagine how proud your mother would be!!
Closing Thoughts: Rules for Revolutionaries.
Five specific rules for revolutionaries looking to create magnificent dashboards:
- Dashboards are not reports. Don't data puke. Include insights. Include recommendations for actions. Include business impact.
- NEVER leave data interpretation to the executives (let them opine on your recommendations for actions with benefit of their wisdom and awareness of business strategy).
- When it comes to key performance indicators, segments and your recommendations make sure you cover the end-to-end acquisition, behavior and outcomes.
- Context is everything. Great dashboards leverage targets, benchmarks and competitive intelligence to deliver context. (You'll see that in above examples.)
- This will be controversial but let me say it anyway. The primary purpose of a dashboard is not to inform, and it is not to educate. The primary purpose is to drive action!
Hence: List the next steps. Assign responsibility for action items to people. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. Never forget to compute business impact.
I wish you happy dashboarding!
As always, it is your turn now.
What is your absolute favorite tip for creating great dashboards? Do you have a favorite dashboards, even a mock, that you would like to share with us? Will your company be open to adopting our three layer structure of CDPs, tactical and strategic dashboards? What have I overlooked in terms of reality on the ground, a facet of convincing people, working with companies in my recommendations in the post above? What part was most eye-opening, or you loved the most?
Please share your critique, insights, ah-ha moments and examples via comments.
P.S: Bonus posts you might find to be of value.