The Hammock Chronicles (2016 Edition)

Long-time subscribers to this newsletter know that every August, my family and I retreat to Bustins Island in Casco Bay, Maine, where I commandeer the hammock and contemplate life (along with the inside of my eyelids). (Check out previous posts from my island hammock here.)

Very little has changed about Bustins Island since I first starting coming to it 31 years ago with my husband, Bret. One thing that has, however, is that after all those summers I know the Island drill, as does my family, and we have a highly streamlined system for packing, travel, and enjoying our stay. We know exactly what to take for a fab vacation: good food and wine, bathing suits, some great books. And that’s it.

Musing on the accomplishment of having exactly what we need on the Island got me thinking (from the hammock, of course) about dashboard and report design, and the experience and discipline it takes to display exactly the right information needed for informed decisions – nothing more nor less.

Finding this balance can take a little time, and is often the result of trial and error; but once you commit to a method and approach, you will find your work much easier. The following “Three Commandments” will remind you to try techniques I have found extraordinarily helpful.

Document and Diagram. Take time to understand your clients’ mental models of the way they use data in their work. A diagram like the one below will guide you and them through the documentation of precisely what information should display on an Overview Summary Dashboard (for monitoring performance); Zoom Reports (for more in-depth analysis on a specific dimension); and Details Lists.


(click to expand)

Talk it Through. If you get stuck (and you will!), ask your clients to describe specific situations in which they used data that you’d displayed for them; or to recall scenarios when they would have found additional information helpful. Often this clarifies for both of you how and at what stage in the thought process information will be most supportive, and the precise spot it will be displayed most effectively. Sometimes after this process, a metric may even be judged of no value, and can be deleted to free up precious space.

Build Simple Prototypes; Be Engaged. Okay, this sounds obvious – but you must engage your clients, honestly and clearly discussing what will be created and using basic prototypes to guide you through several rounds of brainstorming before everything starts to crystalize. Remember though that there is a fine line between “tossing around ideas” and “over-thinking”: you also need to know when to stop prototyping, and build and deploy. The perfect is the enemy of the possible.

It took our family years to figure out exactly what we needed on Bustins Island for a great vacation – and of course that “exactly” has changed over time as our children have grown and our interests evolved.

But once we thought deeply about what was important to us, and what material objects would only enhance enjoyment of that, we were able to enjoy our vacation to the fullest – supported by just the right type and amount of stuff.

The absolute same thing is true about reports and dashboards. Once you determine what your clients need and hope to accomplish, you can collaborate with them to choose just the right supporting data and information, and the most effective way to display those – nothing less, nothing more.

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