How Effective Are Your ServiceNow Dashboards?

At Stave, one of the things I think is great is when I get to see a portal site one of our customers has developed using CMS+.  CMS+ is designed to build responsive portals in ServiceNow faster and easier than what you can by default, but since the portals are usually built by ServiceNow users at a company, we don't always get to see what cool things they've built.

I was given a demonstration from a customer recently on their use of CMS+ portals to display different dashboards for the different parts of their enterprise that used ServiceNow.  They had deployed the platform for IT, HR, Facilities, and even Legal, so you can image the different dashboards were very diverse and showed copious amounts of information.

It was actually really information overload and It got me thinking, though, about what exactly should be on an effective dashboard.

 

The Dashboard Journey

We all know that today when a business user says he or she needs a dashboard, it refers to a screen with pretty charts and graphs and numbers.  But, I wanted to understand the dashboards in a sense of historical context to know why things were the way they were today.  Dashboards are, of course, the front instrument panel that faces a driver in a car.  "Get your feet off the dashboard", is a phrase that I'm sure every child born since the proliferation of cars has heard, because they are important and shouldn't be obstructed.

I learned that the term even pre-dates the automobile.  The original dashboards were literally planks of wood in a carriage between the passengers and the horse that were there to block debris from flying up every time the horse dashed.  Dash.  Board.  So these passengers are facing forward and staring at this piece of wood.  I'm sure it was only a matter of time before some drivers tacked up something useful to look at.  Perhaps it was something static like a map, a list of directions, or something more like this:

 

New Sensors and Live Updates

It was the advent of automobiles, when the dashboard started to become really useful.  Since vehicles were mechanical, dashboards for the first time could display dynamic information.  Vehicle speed, engine revolutions, and fuel levels could be displayed on gauges and updated live to the driver so that he or she could make wise decisions.

That's really where we are going with this -- what do you need to have in front of you, live, to help you make wise decisions.

 

Did We Become Wiser Drivers?

While sitting in traffic the other day, I took a good look at my dashboard.  It looks like this:

I generally don't think about the dashboard much, but when I look at it, it tells me the following things:

  • My current speed
  • If me or my backpack is not wearing a seat belt
  • Fuel level and how many miles I have left to drive
  • The time
  • Outside temperature
  • If my turn signal is on
  • Engine RPM
  • and if the wireless key can't be found 

When I really started to think about it, my first-pass analysis was that this dashboard had alot of wasted space.  I really wasn't that interested in much of what it was showing.  It's an automatic transmission car, so I don't really need to know how fast the engine is spinning, and even with the speed, I tend to drive as fast as everyone else on the freeway, and it's not like I'm locked into a set velocity.  Let's also not forget how ridiculous it would be for a diesel VW Jetta to be clocked at 160 mph...

Then I started to ask myself, "Is the dashboard so ineffective, that the manufacturer put what amounts to a second dashboard two-and-a-half feet away?"

That's 2nd screen is where I can see what song is playing on the radio, who's calling me if my phone rings, and other operational events.  It can also display the GPS and let me get directions to where I'm driving in the first place.

 

Purpose of the Two Screens

The main dashboard is really good at telling me if something is wrong, or if something is out of the ordinary.  What you don't see in the photo, and what you don't see unless something is wrong, are all the indicator lights that only show when triggered by a sensor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 If I were to forget to close the trunk or if the tires are low on air, the dashboard will present me with a lit icon.  When I don't need to worry about those things, they aren't lit up.  The dashboard is telling me my attention is required.  Something is important.

 

What's the Difference?

Why the real dashboard, and why the 2nd "shadow dashboard" on middle console?

When you think about what is really on a car's dashboard, you realize that it's all data that represents both core operational data (vehicle speed and fuel levels) and data that requires your immediate attention because it's out-of-the-ordinary.  And that's what you get -- 1 or 2 types of operational data that is most-critical to the car doing what it does -- moving forward, and then a series of, "Hey, this is important!" alerts.

This allows the most-important person -- the driver -- to focus on the road ahead.  It's minimal interface is designed to minimize distractions from what's not as important.

The console off to the side offers operational controls available to both the driver and passenger, which they can manipulate when they have available attention.  When you're cruising down a country road, you have the time to check out every radio station.  What do you do when you're concentrating on looking for parking?  You turn down the radio.

We can translate this format into IT and our business dashboards as well.  Does the CIO really need to be told that nothing is broken right now?  Should he or she only see the indicator lights?  Do managers needs to see the "low fuel" light and have enough time to react?

I think there should be a difference between what information we want and need on our dashboards, and what information we want to work with and manipulate.  The latter of which is what I often refer to as, "tactical reporting".  Another issue is really understanding what information is important to the mission and separating out any "vanity metrics" or information that just isn't helpful.

 

How Much of Our Digital Dashboards Are Just "IT Trivia"?

When you look at what customers have on their ServiceNow dashboards, I feel it often looks like they were designed by committee where everyone went around and got to add their ideas for inclusion.  What you end up with are multiple, confusing screens that don't really convey what's important.  They're showing things that are interesting, but which lack a "so what?" for the business.

Here's a great example.  Opened (or Closed or Both) Incidents/Problems/Changes by Department.  Why is that important?

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It's trivia.  It might be interesting to know, and may be important to analyze as part of more detailed reports, but it provides no business value on a dashboard.

 

The Solution

When you think about what is really on a car's dashboard, you realize that it's all data that represents both core operational data (vehicle speed and fuel levels) and data that requires your immediate attention because it's out-of-the-ordinary.  And that's what you get -- 1 or 2 types of operational data that is most-critical to the car doing what it does -- moving forward, and then a series of, "Hey, this is important!" alerts.

And I don't see that translating to many ITSM and business dashboards.

I think the real factor to look in what type of data you have on your dashboard is to ask yourself, "Is this data here to distract me?"  How much of the data is simply trivia and how much of the data helps you make real, live operational decisions?

I've come up with a short check-list to ask yourself about every metric and KPI you have on your dashboard:

 

The Check List

1. Be Honest With Yourself
For every widget on your dashboard you should be asking yourself, "What business problem does this help me solve?"  Say it out loud.  Tell a friend your co-worker.  If they call, "shenanigans" on your logic, that means that a vanity metric you like and falls into the trivia category.

2. Be Honest About Your Source Data
"Garbage in, garbage out" is an appropriate phrase.  If the data you have isn't accurate or true, any KPIs on your dashboard are just fairy-tales.  It's critical to understand your source data at all times.  How accurate is your data?  How often have you audited it for accuracy?  If the data turned out to be completely wrong, how would you business decisions have been different?  Do you have a governance process on this data source?  

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3. Use  Visual Elements When You Can
Rows and columns of numbers are difficult to digest.  You should use visual elements like charts and graphs whenever possible.  It can show you at a glance the data trends, without having to turn-on your left brain for analysis.

4. But Avoid Using Gauges
Just because your car's dashboard has a gauge, it doesn't mean you should have one on your screen.  Gauges show very little information and take up a lot of space.  Real estate is precious on a dashboard, and the space saved by using a call-out or bar chart is more-efficient.

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5. And Ration Your Pie Charts
Pie charts are great for comparing data, but they don't scale well.  Avoid using pie charts to compare more than 10 different categories.  And for goodness-sake make sure you pick a contrasting color palette and avoid 3-D.

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6. Make it Fit on One Page
Less is more. If it doesn’t fit on one page, it’s not a dashboard, it’s a report!  Keeping everything "above the fold" and available in a single glance empowers people to more easily and clearly grasp the significance and overall meaning of an information set with greater accuracy.

7. Review It and Improve It
The beauty of electronic dashboards are that they can change!  The data you need today might not be the data you need tomorrow and you should be reviewing your key dashboards at least quarterly.  Bring in your team for A/B testing.  Print them and place them on the conference wall side-by-side some co-workers can comment and make notes.

With your ServiceNow dashboards, always be improving, and always be focused on moving forward.

If you need a dashboard or any portal in ServiceNow, take a look at Stave's easy to use apps today.

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