Why Do Most Executive Dashboards Suck So Much?


Despite the many big promises of big data there is big disappointment that our companies are not truly data-driven. A critical part of that sad reality is that our executives don’t rely on data they receive, usually dashboards, as much as they should – and it is not their fault, it might be yours.


Your dashboards don't need more wiz-bang graphics... They need your brain in a box.

There is a profoundly simple reason, and it is heartbreaking.

Consider this... Who has access to data and the skills to analyze the data and understand causal factors related to performance? The Analyst. Who has the power to make decisions and galvanize the organization into action? The CXO. Or perhaps an appropriately higher up executive.

Here’s a handy-dandy visual.

Executive Dashboard Example

If this asymmetry in analytical ability exists, why do we deliver dashboards that contain just data to our executives? And not just data, but all data, at six font-size, with tiny charts and graphs that can fit an A4 sized paper?

If our executives don’t have the analysis skills, knowledge of on the ground context (which you do), or have spent time collecting insights (which you have), why deliver data pukes to them?

Why is the vast majority of the space in our dashboards (which are a critical decision making tool) not words in English, rather than numbers?

My recommendation is that 50% of the dashboard should be words in English, covering three key elements:

1. Insights.

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. A do this specific thing list.

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 dashboards don't need more wiz-bang graphics or for them to be displays of your javascript powers to sql your hadoop to make big query cloud compute. They need more English language. They need your brain in a box.

Here’s a graphic you can keep as a reference/reminder:

Executive Dashboards

As Marketers, Product Managers, Analysts, HR Professionals, Mid-level Managers, Customer Service Insights Leads, have the skills, knowledge and access to information to convert it into a strategic asset for our company. But that won’t happen unless we realize that output of our brilliance needs to be expressed not in numbers, rather it needs to be in English (/Urdu/Mandarin/Norwegian/Swahili).

Are your dashboards custom data pukes and hence just, best case, inform… or do they contain, even emphasize, IABI to drive action?

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.

  1. Dashboards are not reports. Don't data puke. Include insights. Include recommendations for actions. Include business impact.
  2. 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).
  3. When it comes to key performance indicators, segments and your recommendations make sure you cover the end-to-end acquisition, behavior and outcomes.
  4. Context is everything. Great dashboards leverage targets, benchmarks and competitive intelligence to deliver context. (You'll see that in above examples.)
  5. 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.

Did you ever imagine that the answer to all your data problems is the English language? It really is.

I wish you happy dashboarding!

Bonus: Need inspiration? See examples of the best dashboards in this article on my blog: http://zqi.me/dashtips

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