Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Decluttering the Dashboard

It’s Gresham’s Law for clinical trial metrics: Bad data drives out good. Here are 4 steps you can take to fix it.

Many years ago, when I was working in the world of technology startups, one “serial entrepreneur” told me about a technique he had used when raising investor capital for his new database firm:  since his company marketed itself as having cutting-edge computing algorithms, he went out and purchased a bunch of small, flashing LED lights and simply glued them onto the company’s servers.  When the venture capital folks came out for due diligence meetings, they were provided a dramatic view into the darkened server room, brilliantly lit up by the servers’ energetic flashing. It was the highlight of the visit, and got everyone’s investment enthusiasm ratcheted up a notch.

The clinical trials dashboard is a candy store: bright, vivid,
attractive ... and devoid of nutritional value.
I was reminded of that story at a recent industry conference, when I naively walked into a seminar on “advanced analytics” only to find I was being treated to an extended product demo. In this case, a representative from one of the large CROs was showing off the dashboard for their clinical trials study management system.

And an impressive system it was, chock full of bubble charts and histograms and sliders.  For a moment, I felt like a kid in a candy store.  So much great stuff ... how to choose?

Then the presenter told a story: on a recent trial, a data manager in Italy, reviewing the analytics dashboard, alerted the study team to the fact that there was an enrollment imbalance in Japan, with one site enrolling all of the patients in that country.  This was presented as a success story for the system: it linked up disparate teams across the globe to improve study quality.

But to me, this was a small horror story: the dashboard had gotten so cluttered that key performance issues were being completely missed by the core operations team. The fact that a distant data manager had caught the issue was a lucky break, certainly, but one that should have set off alarm bells about how important signals were being overwhelmed by the noise of charts and dials and “advanced visualizations”.

Swamped with high-precision trivia
I do not need to single out any one system or vendor here: this is a pervasive problem. In our rush to provide “robust analytic solutions”, our industry has massively overengineered its reporting interfaces. Every dashboard I've had a chance to review – and I've seen a lot of them – contain numerous instances of vividly-colored charts crowding out one another, with minimal sense of differentiating the significant from the tangential.

It’s Gresham’s Law for clinical trial metrics: Bad data drives out good. Bad data – samples sliced so thin they’ve lost significance, histograms of marginal utility made “interesting” (and nearly unreadable) by 3-D rendering, performance grades that have never been properly validated. Bad data is plentiful and much, much easier to obtain than good data.

So what can we do? Here are 4 initial steps to decluttering the dashboard:

1. Abandon “Actionable Analytics”
Everybody today sells their analytics as “actionable” [including, to be fair, even one company’s website that the author himself may be guilty of drafting]. The problem though is that any piece of data – no matter how tenuous and insubstantial -- can be made actionable. We can always think of some situation where an action might be influenced by it, so we decide to keep it. As a result, we end up swamped with high-precision trivia (Dr. Smith is enrolling at the 82nd percentile among UK sites!) that do not influence important decisions but compete for our attention. We need to stop reporting data simply because it’s there and we can report it.

2. Identify Key Decisions First
 The above process (which seems pretty standard nowadays) is backwards. We look at the data we have, and ask ourselves whether it’s useful. Instead, we need to follow a more disciplined process of first asking ourselves what decisions we need to make, and when we need to make them. For example:

  • When is the earliest we will consider deactivating a site due to non-enrollment?
  • On what schedule, and for which reasons, will senior management contact individual sites?
  • At what threshold will imbalances in safety data trigger more thorough investigation?

Every trial will have different answers to these questions. Therefore, the data collected and displayed will also need to be different. It is important to invest time and effort to identify critical benchmarks and decision points, specific to the needs of the study at hand, before building out the dashboard.

3. Recognize and Respect Context
As some of the questions about make clear, many important decisions are time-dependent.  Often, determining when you need to know something is every bit as important as determining what you want to know. Too many dashboards keep data permanently anchored over the course of the entire trial even though it's only useful during a certain window. For example, a chart showing site activation progress compared to benchmarks should no longer be competing for attention on the front of a dashboard after all sites are up and running – it will still be important information for the next trial, but for managing this trial now, it should no longer be something the entire team reviews regularly.

In addition to changing over time, dashboards should be thoughtfully tailored to major audiences.  If the protocol manager, medical monitor, CRAs, data managers, and senior executives are all looking at the same dashboard, then it’s a dead certainty that many users are viewing information that is not critical to their job function. While it isn't always necessary to develop a unique topline view for every user, it is worthwhile to identify the 3 or 4 major user types, and provide them with their own dashboards (so the person responsible for tracking enrollment in Japan is in a position to immediately see an imbalance).

4. Give your Data Depth
Many people – myself included – are reluctant to part with any data. We want more information about study performance, not less. While this isn't a bad thing to want, it does contribute to the tendency to cram as much as possible into the dashboard.

The solution is not to get rid of useful data, but to bury it. Many reporting systems have the ability to drill down into multiple layers of information: this capability should be thoughtfully (but aggressively!) used to deprioritize all of your useful-but-not-critical data, moving it off the dashboard and into secondary pages.

Bottom Line
The good news is that access to operational data is becoming easier to aggregate and monitor every day. The bad news is that our current systems are not designed to handle the flood of new information, and instead have become choked with visually-appealing-but-insubstantial chart candy. If we want to have any hope of getting a decent return on our investment from these systems, we need to take a couple steps back and determine: what's our operational strategy, and who needs what data, when, in order to successfully execute against it?

[Photo credit: candy store from flikr user msgolightly.]


Nadia said...

I'm authoring my current company's SOP on Vendor Oversight and as a data junkie, I am guilty of all these sins. I'm going to print your tips for decluttering my dashboard and make sure that I keep the focus on what we really need to see when we need to see it.

Paul Ivsin said...


Thanks for your comment! I hope to hear how it goes for you - please share any additional thoughts or realizations you have during your SOP process. I'd be interested to hear about other good or bad points you encounter.