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Don't be afraid of the Big Number Monster

I read Rita's excellent post about BAN (Big A** Numbers). Although I totally agree with the notion that a dashboard needs to convey data in the most effective way, I can't disregard the big numbers (and surprisingly for the same reason Rita can).

Let us look at this classic gauge from a car dashboard for example:

Classic car dashboard
Classic car dashboard is classic.

We can understand from it that we are going now at a speed of approximately 66 km/h. And maybe that our car can reach 220 km/h. Maybe. At best case scenario. Probably not though.

BUT, what about this one:

Digital speed gauge
Digital speed gauge. The 80's called asking for their design back.

Is it better? It does show us the exact speed and our brain probably read it faster. And yet, it's just a big number. It doesn't relate to any other information. The matter is that it does. When we are driving, our speed is measured so we will know that we are driving under the speed limit. If we are driving a stick, maybe we need this data to know when it's time to shift gears. If the car overheats, maybe it can help us determine the reason. But mostly it's the speed limit bit I think. So there is a relationship of numbers here. It's just that the other number is not presented. The speed limit is not shown in the dashboard (in most new cars it does) but we suppose to know it at the situation itself.

new speed guage with speed limit presented.
Now we can see the relations.

So big numbers by themselves don't have relationships - It depends on their context. I told you we were looking at a car dashboard and this was enough for this example. That is because before we get behind a steering wheel we need to learn all the signals and rules of the road.

Same goes here:

Numbers on a card, building, clock and thermostat.
Numbers. Big ones. Small ones. Black ones. Red ones.

These numbers need a context to be understood. But when we know what they represent, it's easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. Our brain knows exactly what they refer to, and for each situation if they are good, bad or indifference for us.

The same goes when we are analyzing our business. Our big numbers may appear to float in the void, alone, with no hope for love – but actually, when we look at them we compare them to the relevant question in hand.

When a sales manager looks at cards like these:

She immediately knows if it's good or bad. That because these cards are referring her to some other data she knows (or supposed to know). Just like with the speed gauge, this data is read very fast. And it's BIG. You KNOW this data is important. It is not yanked from its place - it was carefully chosen to be put on a pedestal for us to adore. Or to learn from. Whatever.

So, should we only use big numbers from now on in our dashboards? Of course not! But I would consider them dearly. Especially for CxO or others who won't dive into the details. If they need the big picture, big numbers can do the trick.



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