Tangible Technologies and Analytic Widgets

Earlier this month, I wrote about desktop widgets and their ability to push branded messages to consumers. Today, I’ll discuss taking this ambient communication platform to the next level and how it can provide valuable business insight in both physical and digital forms.

In 1997, I toured the MIT Media Lab and observed a series of spinning pinwheels that were part of a tangible technology study. The pinwheels were spinning at various speeds without any wind in the room. Fueling the activity was a data stream reflecting the real-time loads of network traffic, e-mail volume, and Web site activity. The intention was to convey varying network loads to the students and faculty without using traditional modes of communication: Web pages, meetings, and the like. According to Hiroshi Ishii, co-director of the Things That Think school and visionary of the experiment, “The pinwheels visualize invisible data and also make it tangible.”

We’ve utilized this philosophy with a physical traffic board on our Detroit office’s lobby wall since 2001. It’s an LED display of traffic numbers, and it looks like the scoreboard in your neighborhood stadium. The format’s friendly, approachable, and familiar.

The sign keeps everyone focused on the key performance metrics of the DaimlerChrysler brand sites: Dodge, Chrysler, and Jeep. The sign displays three real-time numbers that are constantly increasing: site visitors, leads, and quotes generated. The numbers are simple; they’re whole numbers, not percentages or ratios.

I spoke with Chris D’Alessandro, our director of customer insight about the sign.

“The sign is a simple reminder to us, and our clients, that we are here for a reason — to drive consumers to the Web and, yes, assist them in selling vehicles,” says D’Alessandro. “The location of the sign is key. There’s one in our lobby and, recently, there was another one added at the client’s marketing headquarters. It’s a great way for all of us to stay in synch on the big picture.”

How do people know what the sign means?

“The sign has become an icon of this office,” he says. “During orientation, we present the sign to new employees and explain the importance of it. That initial impression sticks with them, and they’ll forever remember why they walk in the door every day.”

Does it work? Does it keep people focused on the big picture?

“Simplicity was the key to the sign,” he says. “It’s a living KPI, or key performance indicator. As we all know, KPIs are necessary to understand how the business is performing. Sometimes, communicating the KPIs to everyone is a huge challenge. This is an easy way for us to get the relevant KPIs to all the appropriate audiences. It’s in their face, and they can’t ignore it.”

The sign works because it’s simple. It’s too easy for us to get lost in a sea of raw data and complicated charts. (No offense, metrics guys. You know I love you.)

Not everyone can have a sign. This is where widgets come into the picture. With a greater proliferation of widget platforms included in Windows Vista and Mac OS X, we’re creating virtual versions of the sign for our clients. By using simple, information-oriented design, we can create a new series of metaphors to reflect user traffic and other key day-to-day metrics. These widgets are inexpensive to develop, and you can secure the information in a variety of ways.

To get started, talk to your metrics and analytics teams to see how they share their information. Are they getting the audience, time, and attention they require? If not, you may want to look into some other forms of conveying this information to your management team and office. Start with some desktop tools, because you can move fast without a big investment.

The bottom line is this: If everyone’s more aware of your site’s performance, not only will everyone be focused on results but ideas — and true innovation — may also flow a little faster.

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