Dear Technology Vendor, Your Dashboard Sucks (and it’s not your fault)

By on in , with 7 Comments

Working in measurement and analytics at a digital marketing agency, I find myself working with a seemingly (at times) countless number of of technology platforms – most of them are measurement platforms (web analytics, social media analytics, online listening), but many of them are operational systems that, by their nature, collect data that is needs to be reported and analyzed (email platforms, marketing automation and CRM platforms, gamification systems, social media moderation systems, and so on). And, not only do I get to work with these systems in action, but one of the many fun things about my job is that I constantly get to explore new and emerging platforms as well.

During a recent presentation by one of our technology partners, I had a minor out of body experience where I saw this dopey-voiced Texan turn into something of a crotchety crank. He (I) fairly politely, and with (I hope) a healthy serving of humor poured over the exchange, lit into the CEO. I didn’t know where it came from…except I did (when I pondered the exchange afterwards).

When it comes to reporting, technology vendors fall into the age-old trap of, “When all you have is a hammer, all the world looks like a nail.” The myopia these vendors display varies considerably – some are much more aware of where they fit in the overall marketing ecosystem than others – but they consistently don blinders when it comes to their data and their dashboards.

The most important data to their customers, they assume, is the data within their system. Sure, they know that there are other systems in play that are generating some useful supplemental data, and that’s fantastic! “All” the customer needs to do is use the vendor’s (cumbersome) integration tools to bring the relevant subsets of that data into their system. “Sure, you can bring customer data from your CRM system into our web analytics environment. I’ll just start writing up a statement of work for the professional services you’ll need to do that! What? You want data from our system to be fed into your CRM system, too? I’ll get an SOW rolling for that at the same time! Did I mention that my youngest child just got into an Ivy League school? Up until five minutes ago, I was sweating how we were going to pay for it!”

The vendors – their sales teams – tout their “reporting and analytics” capabilities. They frequently lead off their demos with a view of their “dashboards” and tout how easy and intuitive the dashboard interface is! What they’re really telling their prospective customers, though, is, “You’ll have one more system you’ll have to go to to get the data you need to be an effective marketer.” <groan>

Never mind the fact that these “dashboards” are always data visualization abominations. Never mind the fact that they require new users to climb a steep learning curve. Never mind that they are fundamentally centered around the “unit of analysis” that the stem is built for (a content management system’s dashboard is content-centric, while a CRM system’s dashboard is customer-centric). They only provide access to a fraction of the data that the marketer really cares about most of the time.

Clearly, these platforms need to provide easy access to their data. I’m not really arguing that dashboard and reporting tools shouldn’t be built into these systems. What I am claiming is that vendors need to stop believing (and stop selling) that this is where their customers will glean the bulk of their marketing insights. In most cases, they won’t. Their customers are going to export the data from that system and combine it (or at least look at it side by side) with data from other systems. That’s how they’re going to really get a handle on what is happening.

The CEO with whom I had the out-of-body experience that triggered this post quickly and smartly turned my challenge back on me: “Well, what is it, ideally, that you would want?” I watched myself spout out an answer that, now 24 hours later, still holds up. Here are my requirements, and they apply to any technology vendor who offers a dashboard (including web analytics platforms, which, even though they exist purely as data capture/reporting/analysis systems…still consistently fall short when it comes to providing meaningful dashboards – partly due to lousy flexibility and data visualization, which they can control, and partly due to the lack of integration with all other relevant data sources, which they really can’t):

Within your tool, I want to be able to build a report that I can customize in four ways:

  • Define the specific dimensions in the output
  • Define the specific measures to include in the output
  • Define the time range for the data (including a “user-defined” option – more on that in a minute)
  • Define whether I want detailed data or aggregated data, and, if aggregated, the granularity of the trending of that data over time (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.)

Then, I want that report to give me a URL – an https one, ideally – onto which I can tack login credentials such that that URL will return the data I want any time I refresh it. I want to be able to drop that URL into any standalone reporting environment – my data warehouse ETL process, my MS Access database, or even my MS Excel spreadsheet – to get the data I want returned to me. I’m want to be able to pass a date range in with that request so that I can pull back the range of data I actually need.

Sure, in some situations, I’m going to want to hook into your data more efficiently than through a secure http request – if I’m looking to pull down monstrous data sets on a regular basis – but let’s cross that “API plus professional services” bridge when we get to it, okay?

I’m never going to use your dashboard. I’m going to build my own. And it’s going to have your data and data from multiple other platforms (some of them might even be your competitors), and it’s going to be organized in a way that is meaningful to my business, and it’s going to be useful.

Stop over-hyping your dashboards. You’re just setting yourselves up for frustrated customers.

It’s a fantasy, I realize, but it’s my fantasy.

7 Comments


  1. Great post.

    I think some of the issue is that when these things were built, the end users were the tech guys, and the system was built for them – people who looked at all the pages, hits, traffic, etc. They were no strangers to clicking around to finding the reports they needed and were better at finding the stuff than say some entry level marketing analyst.

    And not only were the other tech guys the end user – the people building the interface were usually the developers. There weren’t usability teams, designers, etc in the mix – it was the developers with some basic input I’m sure from the business side, but it was tech guys building for tech guys.

    Only recently have we seen some tools get massive overhauls (Webtrends Insight interface) or new tools that were usable from the ground up (Google Analytics) that really focused on the end user’s experience, no matter what their skill level.

    And with regards to data.. I have to compliment Webtrends on their focus of getting the data out of the system with REST, exporting options, ODBC connections, and other ways I haven’t really even bothered with. I hope they continue their focus on a better UI up front, but some people just need the data in another system, and that’s fine too.

  2. Well put, Bryan — I suspect you nailed it as to the root cause of the issue, and I totally agree with your callouts of Webtrends and Google Analytics as tools that have much nicer UIs than many other tools out there (including tools well beyond web analytics platforms). I haven’t worked with direct connections to Webtrends in a while — they used to be clunky and slow, but that was years ago, so it’s good to hear they’ve been broadening the options and that those options work well.

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