I once had a boss who boiled every PowerPoint slide, Excel spreadsheet and graphic down to one simple question: “So what?” At the time I saw it as a funny way of challenging my assumptions and making sure I knew the material I was presenting. As time passes, I realize it was more about understanding my audience. Attention is a valuable commodity and we can’t afford to waste it with half-baked visuals. The “So what?” is the story — the theme of this pie chart or that graph.
We refer to visuals of customer data from our VMS as “data stories.” Just like any story, a good visual has characters, a setting, conflict, plot and theme. In business, the character is the client or subject of the data. The setting can include dates, locations and business units. The conflict is the action we are attempting to change with our visual. The plot is the actual data — the points of a scatter plot or bars in a graph. Finally, the theme is our “So what?” Any visualization without a theme is like a fable without a moral.
To illustrate the idea that visualizations are meaningless without compelling content, take a look at a blog post from Andrew Gelman, professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University. He includes two charts. The top chart is prettier and visually striking, whereas the second one is more actionable and shows each point in the same view. It allows for an easy comparison of the data points. While the second chart is less attention-grabbing, it’s the data that truly sets it apart.
Now think for a moment about your VMS’ business intelligence tools. When you see a chart or graph with your company’s data, is the “So what?” immediately clear? Today’s advanced VMS tools often outline the visualization options at our disposal. In my view this is an excellent mechanism for forcing hiring managers and program owners to filter the necessary data points and avoid the fire hose approach seen far too often. This filter brings us closer to our story and helps us focus on the content of a visualization, not the tool used to create it. More focused and less cluttered visuals help to develop a story and call out the “So what?”
Using the “So what?” approach to analysis and reporting helps consumers separate the business signal from the data noise. Truly striking visuals outline a problem and lead us to take immediate action. The opportunities for improvement are so obvious they drive the development of our tactical action plan. The simplicity and power of the visualization can be used again to track the action plan’s successes and failures. We use the same data to measure and re-measure the effect of our actions and create a continuous improvement loop. Like many effective business strategies, “So what?” is a very simple concept to help ground our ambitions and re-think priorities.