Dashboard Design: Teaching Strategic and Analytical Thinking

At CAN, we exist to provide our clients with leading edge methodologies that are both effective and easy to use.  This requires that we constantly learn about new tools and techniques, and hone a fine edge on the ones we keep to provide to our clients.

Previously on our blog, we have discussed the application of dashboards and aspects of dashboard design that facilitate rapid perception by the human brain.  How about using dashboards as a way to teach users a way of thinking?  In this blog, we will discuss using dashboards to promote strategic thinking through guided analysis.
One of our clients approached CAN with the following predicament.  Their enterprise operates nationwide with several districts responsible for operations within their unique geographic region.  Every year, the strategic planning division would produce a thick binder reviewing each districts market forecasts, opportunities, and past performance.  The intent was to assist the non-technical managers and business development of each district to think about trends in the market and industry to get more sales.  Although very well produced and full of useful information, these binders acted mostly as a reference and did little to encourage analysis by the end-user.
Our solution was to use the same information used to build the binders and create views using Tableau.  At first, these views replicated the familiar visualizations found in binders with an added level of interaction.  Then, we started to add new data sources into the existing information.  We connected industry forecasts, census data, economic indicators, past performance and connected all this functionality to a dashboard where the end user is able to bring in these factors at their command.  Populating the dashboard with the raw materials required for analysis, is the first stage.
The second stage is defining the business questions that the users need to answer to run their business.  We interviewed the executives on the strategic planning team and in several of the district offices to define what the most important business questions they needed to answer to run their business.  Instead of providing managers of each district with binders that pushed facts and figures at them, we created a work book of questions that needed to be answered and how the answers could be applied to running their district.
The third stage is doing most, not all, of the users’ work for them.  What I mean by this is producing dashboards that are 90% completed for the types of questions the user will want to answer.  Our goal is to support the user in asking questions and getting answers, not simply handing them the answers or making them build their own dashboards.  So, we build pre-made views for them.  For example, one aspect of our client’s business functions was closely related to population growth.  We produced a dashboard that integrated population growth figures for the past several years with our client’s historical sales figures and billable hours.  The district manager, interested in staffing requirements, can population changes across the region with his current staffing and identify where adjustments and hiring are likely to take place.
In designing guided analysis, the bottom line is producing dashboards that solve the business question that users need to answer.  This requires that the designers understand the purpose of each dashboard, how it will be used, and what the user intends to get out of it.  If your goal is to achieve data-driven decisions from non-technical managers, you must design so that the user is on the right track with the controls, but ultimately require their interaction and thinking to reach the outcome.
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