One of the more interesting ideas I've come across in data is the notion of considering the emotional needs of dashboarding.
What do I mean by this?
I was talking with a senior product person last week, and he put something into words that I'd long thought about, but had trouble articulating. “Often people will say they want a dashboard. But most of the time this is wrong. You don't need a place to look at data. You need a thing that compels action. The two are similar but different things.”
Why do they ask for a dashboard, then? The answer, which this product leader delivered with a grin, is that the exec often has an emotional need to feel on top of the business. “What this means is that it's not enough to say to the exec ‘oh, you don't want a dashboard, you want a thing that compels action’; you have to think about how to address that emotional desire at the same time.”
How you address this emotional desire is a matter of creativity. I jokingly suggested installing a red light on their desk — if it lights up, the exec may treat it as a signal to find someone to yell at.
More practically, however, you might fulfil this emotional desire with something like a daily or weekly email. It doesn't matter if the exec in question doesn't really look at it or if the numbers they ask for are all vanity metrics or if it's chock-full of lagging indicators; remember — you can't single-handedly change the data culture of an org with one email.
No, the point of the email is to soothe their emotional needs. You want to create something that gives them a feel for the business, however far removed they are from operations. And if you dump all of their desired numbers into that one email, you're probably able to redirect some of their energy to a different medium ... which allows you to keep your dashboards cleaner.
The meta lesson here isn't that emails are better than dashboards or that you should install a business intelligence tool with email built in (*cough*, we make one), or even that you need to teach folk that ‘thing that compels action’ is better than ‘thing that displays data’ (although this is true!). The meta-lesson is that the often-repeated recommendation to treat internal data artefacts like you would a real product is good and true ... and one way products are built is that they are built by considering all the needs of the user — rational or otherwise.
Of course, a daily/weekly email is merely one way to solve your exec's emotional needs. We encourage you to come up with others. Just remember that emotional desires are real things that have to be dealt with; they aren't soft things that don't matter. Treat them accordingly.
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