I was watching a session from the R Studio Global Conference recently, on dashboards and dashboard fatigue, and this quote from Sean Lopp really stood out to me and changed my thinking about KPIs (key performance indicators) and how we use them:
“KPIs are notification thresholds.”
In retrospect, this should have been obvious to me, but I’d never thought about KPIs that way, and Sean’s statement really reframed the KPI. Let’s explore why.
The Traditional Role of KPIs
In marketing at least, KPIs serve mainly as headlines on things like dashboards and reports. These are the big numbers at the top of the report, the focus of the executive summary, the numbers we dedicate the most charts, graphs, and tables to:
And yet… in the context of the reporting we do, if these numbers are so key to our performance, why do we only look at them infrequently? Why are they the focus of just the weekly or monthly or quarterly report?
Even if we have our dashboards set up as the home page of our browsers (you do, for mission-critical data, yes?), this is still a passive use of the data. It becomes so familiar to us that we don’t really look carefully at our KPIs after a while.
How do we fix this, so that we make better use of our data?
KPIs Are Notification Thresholds
Sean’s quote gives us the insight we need to make our data valuable and actionable. A KPIs is – or should be – a notification threshold. What does that mean? When our KPIs go above or below a certain number, we should know about it and take action on it. On the back end, in our systems, in our code, we should have processes in place that signal when a KPI goes above or below a certain boundary, a certain range.
For example, look at my search traffic from Google Search Console:
By itself, this data doesn’t really do anything, does it? It’s just kind of… there. And I see days where things were good and days where things weren’t good. How would we turn this into something more action-oriented?
Let’s slap a very basic set of boundaries on this data, an upper and lower threshold, shown by the green box here:
Days when my search traffic is outside of the green box are days when there are anomalies – either search traffic was unusually low or high. That’s important – why did that happen? What were the search terms on those days when things didn’t work or worked really well? Having that information – and sooner than the end of the month or the quarter – would help me determine if something was going on with my content.
That’s where the notification threshold idea comes into play. You can see in the box above that the days ouside of the green box aren’t singular events. They’re multi-day events, so a notification even the next day that something’s up would be valuable and actionable.
What we mean by a notification threshold is that I’d want some software to notify me that something’s up. I’d want it to send an email or a text or a Slack message or heck, a singing telegram, to let me know that I need to go look at my data as the anomaly is happening. In the case of search performance, if Google’s algorithm suddenly changed, I’d want to know, for good or ill.
Here’s an even more basic example, but one I’ve seen time and again in Google Analytics:
You see the issue? it’s right in the middle of the chart – four days of missing data where the website’s Google Analytics reported essentially zero traffic. Why? This happens an awful lot in marketing when we do things like website updates/changes and we accidentally delete our Google Analytics tracking code… and then don’t discover the issue until the next reporting period and we have a serious gap in our data.
If the site owner had constructed a system for notifications, they would have known after a single day instead of 4 days that they’d blown up their Google Analytics installation and been able to fix it. Instead, they have to contend with 4 days of missing data, which hosed their month-over-month and year-over-year reports for a full calendar year.
So, how do we move forward? First, we should determine if there’s a problem. If your dashboarding software has usage analytics, dig into them. Most good dashboarding software either has built-in usage data, or allows you to install Google Analytics on it. Check your dashboard usage. If no one’s using your dashboards (or far fewer than should be) then you know you have an analytics usage problem. People aren’t using data to make decisions.
Second, work with your technical folks, be they in-house staff, contractors, or agencies, to build a real notifications system and have it send out alerts only when KPIs deviate from their norms. We don’t want to get daily notices of normal, business as usual activity. We only want to be pinged when we need to take action, when we need to look at something unusual, otherwise we’ll ignore the notifications.
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