The Case for Dashboard-Driven Development
Your boss doesn’t care about software.
Once you’ve seen a beautiful project torpedoed before launch by a corporate decision — all that money and time down the drain, all that code left to rot on an internal server somewhere and never to be seen again — well, you’d like to avoid that. Forever.
When we started Postlight, we decided we’d push the opposite approach — we wanted to earn a reputation as the company that ships no matter what.
To deliver on that mission, we built a lot of management consulting right into our practice, under the guise of product management. We talk about it all the time on the Postlight Podcast (even more than we talk about tech itself), and we wrote Catalyst — our guide to shipping digital products that focuses less on the software part and more on the organizational politics and managing up required to get something shipped.
Software doesn’t ship to market without a lot of people championing it and pushing it forward. And you need all the help you can get.
“Managing up” gets a bad rap. Builders find it annoying to present their decision points to people who don’t know their craft; leaders are annoyed by people who are driven by software questions and less by business drivers. Everyone ends up patronizing everyone else and still the projects get cut.
But let me throw out an alternative that’s good for everyone: We refer to it as dashboard-driven development. The idea is pretty simple to execute and it can create buy-in all around.
Let’s say you’re building a new product for real estate appraisals. Someone is going to take a tablet computer and walk around a house or apartment, entering data, taking pictures, and writing notes, and from there they can decide what the property is worth, so that the bank can decide whether to give that person a mortgage.
Your product is being built internally. It’s going to be faster! Better! The appraisers have complained for 10 years about the number of forms they have to fill out, and you’re going to cut that by 90%. Videos will replace images. These are great features! Everyone is overjoyed.
It’s also going to take 18 months to fully roll out to the whole company and it will cost a couple million dollars to develop. And during that time your boss, or your boss’s boss, will experience: a lengthy, difficult budgeting phase, quarterly review board meetings, bad days, good days, growth prioritization off-sites, a dip in business, and at least one serious corporate emergency. They’ll also be pitched on off-the-shelf software by salespeople on a constant basis.
You may not realize it, but they’re defending you. Even if it doesn’t feel that way, even if they’re not doing the greatest job at it — they think they’re doing the best they can. And add to this that you can usually keep a boss’s attention up until design is locked. But the next 15 months, presenting Jira tickets and burndown charts — it’s a struggle.
So what does matter to them? The dashboards. The analytics. The reports that will let them know how this line of business is doing, what returns it is generating, how much time it is saving, and how many growth opportunities it is delivering. Typically this is lumped in with a bunch of KPIs and promises.
Try this: “We want to do an exercise where we talk through all the metrics we can gather, and then design a dashboard together that will actually help you. Because when this thing is done, it will generate a ton of data, and I see it as my job to give you good tools to know what’s going on and to make good decisions based on data. It’s critical for our long-term success.”
Now work together. Whiteboard out what an “ideal dashboard” would look like for your boss — something they can use to make decisions and build the business.
Choosing Your Metrics
Come with a list of the kinds of data you’ll be able to gain from this new product. For the appraisal app, here are a few:
- Conversion rates for inbound business
- Overall financials
- Digital invoicing compliance
- Number of messages sent in-app
- Client engagement
- Time spent in app
- Number of jobs done per week
- Top performers
- Low performers
- Performance by region
- Time spent in transit
- Time to deliver final report
Not sure which analytics to propose? Look at the web pages for companies that offer more general versions of what you’re selling. Look at all their differentiators and back those into metrics (all I did above was search for appraisals). Start the conversation that way.
Now that you have the dashboards, you can return to this conversation every time you present progress. You’re not just building something for users, you’re building something that informs leaders and helps them make better decisions. The good news is also that dashboards, at this stage in the game, are pretty easy to build. There are tons of open-source platforms that make it easy. So you can actually show them real dashboards. That they can use. And ask them what they think. Ask them how they’d like to be notified of changes. What cadence is right? Do they want to log in every morning? Get an email? Get a text?
Now look, there’s a way to read this cynically. You’re distracting the boss with shiny things! But trust me, a boss really appreciates a good summary. And there’s no better summary than a good dashboard with well-considered metrics.
And in addition, you’re doing many things right for your product by following this approach:
- You’re defining the real business drivers that will sustain this platform long-term.
- You’re giving leaders opportunities to commit to and engage with digital transformation.
- You’re defining more parts of the value chain around your platform.
- You’re building a more coherent relationship between executive leadership and end-users.
That last part is key. You have to build for your users first — that’s an undeniable truth. But after launch, have you ever seen a bold product vision slowly get shattered by the addition of more layers of analytics, new frameworks, integrations with other systems? Look at what happened to news websites with online advertising — that’s just a highly visual example. It will happen to your great design, too. So one of the best things you can do is to think about how to protect your users, and their experience, when the future comes knocking with yet another third-party tracker, pixel, CRM integration, set of pop-ups, or data capture workflow.
Of course, while you’re building these sweet dashboards, you also have to build your whole new platform and software — the real work! —and the thing that people will use and that will feed data into the dashboards. But that part of the work won’t be so abstract to your stakeholders because you’ve invested time in their needs. You’ll have made it easier for them to protect you. And they want to get promoted, too, just like you do.
Paul Ford is the CEO and Co-Founder of Postlight. Talk to him about digital transformation at firstname.lastname@example.org and find him on Twitter @ftrain.