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Storytelling With Data: Dashboarding Do’s and Don’ts with Cole Nussbaumer

This post originally appeared as a podcast on Allegiance Radio.

Welcome once again to Allegiance on Blog Talk Radio. I’m Jeff Olsen, your host, broadcasting live from the VoCFusion event in Las Vegas.

Today our guest is Cole Nussbaumer. Cole is the manager of People Analytics at Google.

Jeff Olsen: Welcome Cole, first of all.
Cole Nussbaumer: Thank you.

JO: I’m curious. What does the manager of People Analytics do?

CN: That’s a great question. People Analytics is an analytics team within Google’s HR organization. We try to ensure that people decisions at Google, in decisions made about our employees or our future employees are data driven.

For a specific example, one thing I can talk about that is public, we had an article written in the New York Times last year with some of the work that we’ve done around managers. We undertook a study on people managers at Google and looked at both a quantitative and a qualitative lens to understand and identify common things that good managers do well as well as some common challenges and struggle points.

The way that we have been able to make the learnings from that actionable is one, to have a consistent language that we use across Google to be able to talk about manager capability, but more importantly to be able to give manager feedback along areas that we know are having an impact and be able to then target development of those areas. Our belief is that every Googler deserves the experience of having a fantastic manager so we’re working towards making that happen with the data, the learnings that we have from that study.

JO: How did you sell this to the managers? I know some managers have, “Is this Big Brother? They are watching me. They are going to tell me how to do my job.”

CN: No, no, no. I like to think that there’s this innate sense that people want to be good at what they do.

JO: Be better?

CN: Yes. Oftentimes I think what happens at Google, at other places as well, is if someone is doing well as an individual contributor, then they get promoted to manager and like, “Okay, now you’re the manager. Figure it out.” By being able to put targeted development in place and kind of help people along that path, managers have been very open to it.

JO: This data that you’ve been collecting, as far as communicating the data through charts and dashboards, what would you say are the basic elements of a good dashboard or a good chart? I know that you were mentioning in your session here today that most execs, most managers, don’t want to wade through a ton of numbers, charts that don’t make sense, so just curious what your best practices would be.

CN: I think one best practice that is often overlooked or that time isn’t adequately spent on is just what is the question that you’re trying to answer and what does your audience need to know? What do they need to do and really keeping your audience front of mind when you’re designing your visuals whether that be a graph or a table or some other visualization that you’re using to get your message across and then taking that lens of your visual; does it convey what I need it to convey and when that’s not the case then going back to the drawing board.

JO: Have you seen any mistakes or have any good tales of the road that you could share with us as far as common things that you see people trying to do? Two or three common mistakes that you see?

CN: I’ll pick two. The two things that people can do to make their visuals more impactful, higher impact would be, one, recognizing and cutting clutter. Clutter can be anything from visuals that don’t make sense or aren’t key to the point or words or ancillary thoughts that aren’t key to what is needing to be communicated. It could be things in our visuals themselves, grid lines, order, things are there that aren’t adding informative value that by cutting we can actually make our data stand out more.

The second thing is the use of color. Color, when used well, can be really key at drawing our audience’s eye to where we want them to focus. It’s almost kind of a way to let our audience into our head as the designer, where they should pay attention. What I find is that color often ends up either being dictated by tools that we use or is used more to make things colorful than for a specific purpose. Being strategic about use of color. Typically I do things in shades of gray and use blue to really draw my audience’s attention to where I want them to pay it.

For me, there are two things that I see probably most often, misdone, that small tweaks could be made to make visuals higher impact would be comfortable identifying cutting out the clutter and be strategic and explicit with your use of color. Don’t let your applications make that important decision for you.

JO: It’s not necessarily that you’re trying to make it look pretty, right?

CN: No, it’s not about making it look pretty, although it’s interesting – research has shown that when it comes to product design, people are actually more tolerant with design issues when something is aesthetic. One statement you could make from that is that is there is a little bit of value in the making a pretty piece because you get a little bit more of your audience’s attention. Then you have to make sure all of the rest stacks up as well.

JO: You were mentioning also about the idea of telling a story. Can we give our audience again a little taste of what you talked about?

CN: Absolutely. Again, this is part of the analytical process that I think doesn’t get as much time as it deserves. I think a lot of times what happens is it takes a while to get the data, to figure out what data we need, to clean the data, and then to do the actually analysis. By the time we’ve completed the analysis it’s stick it in a chart and be done with it when really that’s just the beginning of the communication piece. It’s from that point on is what everybody else sees. It’s all the work that’s been done at the other stages of the analytical process. It’s about letting that final piece, the communication piece, really tell the story and thinking about what that story is.

We’re inundated around the world. A lot of times people ask for data without a specific purpose. I think it’s the role of the analyst, and I consider anybody who every touches data. You’ve got your analyst hat in the closet if that’s the case. It’s the analyst’s role to be asking the right questions of finding that interesting story in the data. In my perspective, data is inherently interesting when you find the right story. Right? That comes down to who is your audience, what’s going to resonate with them, what do you need them to know, what do they need to do, and building all of that context around the data that you’re showing.

JO: Tell us, it’s almost rather than presenting a bunch of random data, letting them draw the conclusion, the data should lead toward some kind of an outcome they’re looking for, a story as you will.

CN: Yes. My personal perspective is that your audience shouldn’t have to work to get at what you want them to know. We, as the designers, as the analysts, should be the ones doing that work so that to your audience, it feels easy.

JO: There’s something that I read, a quote once, said that from a dashboard perspective that it shouldn’t take anybody more than 30 seconds to know what it is you’re trying to convey and what they need to do.

CN: I would say, you’ve got people’s attention for even less than that a lot of the time, about five to eight seconds someone’s going to make the decision of do they devote any more time to looking at what you’ve got in front of them or do they move on to the next thing. It’s about designing our visuals in a way so that somebody can kind of scan and get the gist in that first really five seconds or so to then be able to apply the lens of now do they care. Is it interesting? Should they spend more time with it?

JO: I get this request a lot. People say, “Well, I want to design a chart. I want to design a dashboard, but then I want to give the ability for the person that I design this for, I want to give them the ability to filter or to go do some kind of tabulation or whatever based on it.” What would you say to people who feel they want to do something like that to kind of cover their tracks I guess?

CN: That’s a tough one. I think it comes down somewhat to the audience. Do you have an audience who is going to be both interested in and willing to spend the time exploring? If that’s not the case then the interactivity, the benefit of that is lost. I think sometimes we assume that our audience has more interest there than they do. If there is something you need to communicate, that’s what the story needs to be. For me the interactive filter doesn’t have a place necessarily. It comes back to who you’re communicating to.

JO: Who you’re communicating to.

CN: How you expect they best interact with the information.

JO: It would almost make it more confusing to them, which will cause …

CN: The risk that you can run in making things interactive sometimes it comes down to how it’s designed. If it looks overwhelming you could turn people off immediately so they don’t even get that first level of information that you’re trying to convey. It can be dangerous.

JO: Great. Cole, thank you. I also took note in your session of a website called Do you want to comment on that a little bit?

CN: is a blog that I write on the topic of communicating with data. It is a lot of topics similar to what we covered today. How do you draw your audience’s attention to where you want them to focus? How do you feel comfortable identifying and stripping out clutter? How do you tell a story with data? I do that through a lot of examples that I encounter in my everyday life that people send to me. There are a lot of great tools on there as well like a set of resources. I definitely encourage them to check that out.

JO: Twitter?

CN: Yes. In Twitter, you can follow me @storywithdata.

JO: Cole, thank you very much. I really appreciate you stopping by and talking to us today.

For our audience on Blog Talk Radio, I’ll just remind you that this session will be available via podcast on the Blog Talk Radio/Allegiance channel as well as at Cole, again, thank you very much. For our listeners, tune in again next week as we continue the series in talking to VoC professionals. Thanks a lot. Have a great day.

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