How to Improve a War Board

War boards are commonplace in the modern data-driven business these days. They’re a powerful tool to help spot trends, find anomalies, track progress, and satisfy one’s hunger for numbers. What are war boards? They are the dashboards shown on large screens (often TVs) around a work space. They hang on the wall and, usually, only show high level summary information for at-a-glance insights.

The Problem With Most War Boards

There are a few main issues, each as different as the last. However, they all culminate into one final issue: The war board becomes part of the wallpaper. That is, nobody looks at it. Why? Usually this is due to a few reasons:

  • They don’t update frequently enough
  • The values or graphs don’t change enough
  • The numbers / graphs are similar each day
  • They are too complicated (visually and/or detail level)
  • They contain irrelevant information

If your dashboard suffers from any of the above symptoms, don’t worry, there is hope.

Frequency of Change

This is the first cab off the rank is how often things change. Part of the definition of ‘becoming part of the wallpaper’ has to do with the lack of change. When it is continually the same, people will assume it hasn’t changed, even when it has. You need to keep it fresh in order to keep people’s attention.

Tip #1: Ensure the data source updates as frequently as possible

Ideally every 10 – 15 minutes or less. If this isn’t possible, then try and make it possible. Nirvana is real-time data feeds. Add a ‘Data Freshness’ label to show the last time it was updated.

Tip #2: Use visualisations that show deltas (changes)

If your viz elements draw from changes since the last refresh, then they will, by definition, always be changing. This can be a databox that shows “revenue in the last 15 minutes” or “orders in the last 30 minutes,” or it can be a ‘heartbeat’ chart that has minutes on the X-axis and spikes on the Y-axis when events occur (e.g. a new order).

Tip #3: Don’t show too much historical information

Other dashboards and reports can be used to show history. War boards are usually used for the now. Usually, it’s just today’s data. If your business is fast moving like that, then a daily dashboard is ideal.

Simplifying the Complicated

A quick way to make it easier for people to get the information at-a-glance is to simplify the elements that are on the dashboard. This harks back to the idea of data ink, and may mean trimming down graphs to make them more minimalist, or removing certain pieces of information if they don’t change often.

Tip #4: Use Data Ink principles to make minimal charts and visualisations

Cull superfluous trimmings on your charts where they are not necessary or redundant. This could mean legends, axes, labels, etc. You should only keep what is absolutely necessary to tell the story. What is left, you can then make more prominent. See my post on Data Ink for more on this.

Tip #5: Remove unnecessary elements that people don’t look at every day

This can be done by asking people what they look at on the war board. If there’s something people don’t really look at, or only a few small number of people use, then it’s ripe for culling. The overall benefit of removing it will outweigh the loss the small number of people had in it’s presence.

Relevancy of Information

Similarly to Tip #5, this section is about ensuring you are only including things that are relevant to the time-series you’ve committed to. A dashboard that is primarily giving information on the day’s performance won’t benefit from having a detailed breakdown of a recent employee satisfaction survey. That’s an extreme example, obviously, but it ties in with the theme of keeping on-point when adding elements to your dashboard.

The Ideal War Board

The only way to define the ideal in this situation is by looking at the key performance metric: how often does it get used or looked at?

If people are continually using it to track progress during a day (as intended), then it has succeeded. If you pour hours of effort into making a real-time data stream and a handful of people glance at it once a day, then perhaps the war board has failed. Or perhaps the data culture isn’t mature enough? That’s a topic for another day…

It doesn’t matter how technically awesome a war board is if nobody uses it.

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