Basking in a dashboard’s warm glow

When some people look at dashboards, they want to see patterns but not reasons. “They don’t want to read the fine print,” said one attendee in Lyndsay Wise’s dashboards seminar at Enterprise Data World in San Francisco yesterday. That’s what the man learned in one data-quality project for a human resources department.

He was frank enough to call drill-down “the fine print” — the suggestion that the “why?” is just noise. He slipped out before I could find out more.

Had his complacent users been victims of abusive parents or bad teachers? I’ve worked with such users. I trust them, I like them, and most businesses couldn’t do without them. But I’m curious about their incuriousness, as some of them might wonder about me.

There’s too much data, we know that. Tom Davenport ponders the overwhelmingness of it all today. The Economist reported on it last month, and Neil Raden wrote about it 15 years ago. The casual users feel it more and more.

For the overwhelmed, there’s the palliative dashboard. It works the way Mozart does for who can’t tell Mozart from Schmozart: knowing it’s Mozart makes them feel good. The palliative dashboard can be contrary to every best practice we know of and still succeed.

One person in the audience told about a pre-dashboard-era CEO who prided himself on having no high school degree. He wanted yesterday’s sales figures on his desk at 8 a.m. every morning. What decisions did he make based on that data? None! It just made him feel good, someone discovered later. Even without his reading glasses on, the patterns on the paper must have looked nice against the wood grain on the desk.

Attention dashboard makers: mind the furniture.

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