How to Design an Analytics Dashboard

After doing data analytics (most people would call it data science but I hate that term – I’m not sure why – maybe it seems pretentious??) for 6-7 years, there’s a common conversation that I have about the balance between doing cool analytics and running a business.  The conversation starts with asking what current project you’re working on followed by some description about the business problem and what a potential model will look like.  However, as the conversation continues, it becomes apparent that the model is unlikely to ever exist or be used and the bulk of the person’s time will be spent collecting data, doing some visualization and navigating internal political challenges.

This got me thinking about my own journey in terms of what I thought was important work versus what clients need and what I’d frequently heard artists describe as selling out – choosing commercial success over artistic integrity.  Early on all I wanted to do was build models.  I would avoid any tech or project that didn’t involve modeling.  After doing that for several years I realized that that isn’t really what most consulting clients need (consulting clients are usually mature businesses that can afford consulting fees but don’t have the physical location or reputation to easily attract permanent talent – think large retailer in a fly over state).

Supposedly, there is an old interview with Steve Jobs where he talks about the difference between Apple and Microsoft in terms of their approach to technology.  He claimed that Microsoft would find cool pieces of technology and then build products around them which led to a lack of user friendliness.  Apple, however, would find customer needs and then source the necessary technology to solve the problem.  I think there is a similar dynamic in analytics today, especially on the modeling side.  There are lots of smart people streaming out of analytics programs and quantitative studies ready to build models and do Ted talks but what a lot of clients really need is to be able to get all their data in one place and have it organized in a usable format.

I don’t know which one is right (I know I love spending a few hours with my ear plugs in, doing modeling) but I think there is a lot of opportunity if you think about how to help clients fix their problems as opposed to showing up with a product or skill and trying to shoe horn it into an already struggling organization.

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