Episode 30: [Mini] How to Use Help Desk Tactics to Build More Useful Visualizations


Welcome to episode 30 of Data Viz Today. Do you ever have a client that's not sure what they need, and you also feel at a loss on how to visualize their goal in the most useful way? In this episode, I talk about how I'm bringing back my old Help Desk skills to break through that wall (or vizzer's block ;D) and dig up useful dashboard ideas.

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  • Welcome! I'm Alli Torban.

  • 00:30 - Today’s topic is about breaking through that wall that you hit when you’re trying to create a data viz for a client but they don’t really know what they want but you also feel at a loss on what to do to help.

  • 00:45 I had a low-stakes version of this this past weekend, where I asked my husband if he wanted me to create a dashboard for his new workout plan so he could track his progress but he said he didn’t think it’d be helpful in this case. I knew there was probably something that I could do, but didn’t know exactly what…I realized that I could use my experience on a Help Desk to breakthrough that wall.

  • 01:15 - I was on this small Help Desk team at the Pentagon a while ago, where I helped people who used our custom software learn how to use it and I’d also answer calls to troubleshoot any issues they had. If you’ve never been on a Help Desk, let me tell you what it’s like...It’s like trying to drink from a firehouse, and instead of water, it’s spraying lots and lots problems. People only call you when their work’s been interrupted, they’ve wrestled with the software and have now become so frustrated that they dig up your number to get the solution ASAP. When people call, they have a wide range of abilities in terms of how well they can communicate what they’re experiencing and where their problem is. It was really frustrating when I first started because I’d just take the information someone gave me, hung up and I’d run with it, usually spinning my wheels. But as I got more experienced with the software and how to deal with people, I started to know which questions to ask to get to the problem quickly, and also get to the solution quickly.

  • 02:30 - I’m sure as I’m saying all this, you can easily draw the parallels between being on a Help Desk and consulting with a client about their data viz project. So I wanted to share a few key questions that I found useful while on a Help Desk, and then show you how I used these questions on my husband to go from nothing to lots of dashboard ideas.

  • 03:03 - So my husband started this new workout routine last week called 5x5 where you do 5 sets, 5 reps each of some exercise with a certain amount of weight, and then each week you increase the weight. The idea being after like 2 months you’ve significantly increased the weight you’re able to lift. I’ve created dashboards in the past for him so he can track his progress on new workouts, so I asked him if he wanted one for this endeavor…but he said he didn’t think he needed one because he’s just increasing the weight the same amount each week so there’s not really much to track. And I thought he had a good point, and we left it at that. But I kept thinking that there had to be something that would be useful to track to inform him about his progress, and then I had that thought about being on a Help Desk…there are techniques that I know that can help me get more information from someone with a goal.

  • 04:04 - So I convinced my husband to let me ask him questions to see if I could break through this wall and see if I could create a dashboard that would help helpful…

  • 04:15 - First thing I did when someone called the Help Desk is ask what they were trying to do when they got their error. I want to start with their goal so I know where we’re going.

  • 04:30 - Then, second, I want zoom out to get as much context as possible to see what they’re seeing. Start as zoomed out as possible and zoom in. People usually want to just tell you the zoomed in issue (“document 126 is stuck”)...but if you start chasing document 126, you might realize 3 hours later that you’re in a different application than they’re in. So zoom out and get more details...What browser are you using? Which application are you in? What type of document is this? What were you doing with it when the error occurred? What exactly did the error message say? I want to feel like I’m in that person’s seat, using the same application, trying to do the same task and achieve the same goal. So I know their goal, and I know the context around the situation, so I now I have enough information to go try to investigate behind the scenes

  • 05:30 - The third part is that I’d recreate the issue in the test environment, see if I got the same error, then I’d start testing some hypotheses on why this error is happening… if I change this, can I get around the error and achieve the goal? What about this? I’m trying to hone in on the things that introduce problems and throw the goal off. Then I can tweak whatever I need to and report back to the user with the solution.

  • 05:50 - The most important questions to ask to solve a help desk issue efficiently are

1. What’s your goal?

2. What’re you seeing?

3. What’s causing the problem?

Goal, context, cause

  • 06:10 - So back to the workout …. I asked my husband these questions about his new workout plan.

1. What’s your goal? He said to get stronger. Each week increase the weight he can lift by a certain number each week over 8 weeks.

2. What’re you seeing? What’s the context? What are the things you can measure that’s around this goal? He said measurable things around this goal are the amount of weight and number of reps he completes at each workout, and whether he needs to repeat the workout because he couldn’t complete the last one.

3. What’s causing the problem? What’re some measurable things that could throw the goal off? He said things that might make him not be able to finish a workout at a certain weight is his protein intake, or the type of workout he did the day before.

  • 07:05 - After gathering all these answers, I went from a shoulder shrug and “there’s not really any useful way to visualize progress for this” to a bunch of ideas of things that I could visualize and build into an interactive dashboard that he could use to track his workouts - amount of weight use, workouts completed or repeated, protein intake, off-day workouts…The idea being that by tracking all those things, he can keep close tabs on where he is along the path of achieving his goal, and start to see patterns around what’s affecting his progress.

  • 07:40 - It was a really fun to try this in a no-stakes situation so I could kind of flesh out this idea… and I look forward to trying to work through these questions the next time I feel like I’m hitting a data viz wall with a client...

  • 07:50 - My final takeaway is that when you’re trying to build a data viz that will be useful to your client but you’re feeling stuck, try getting in the Help Desk mindset to uncover the metrics that are meaningful to the goal.

    1. What’s your goal? How can it be measured?

    2. What’re you seeing? What’s the context? What are the things you can measure that’s around this goal?

    3. What’s causing the problem? What’re some measurable things that could throw the goal off?

    4. Goal, context, cause

  • 08:21 - A bonus technique that’s helpful on a Help Desk AND when building data viz for clients is make it a priority to build trust. When you have a trusting relationship, those questions go a lot smoother. So make sure to really listen and leave your ego at the door.

  • 08:50 - If you’ve been enjoying the show, it would mean a lot to me if you could leave me a review in iTunes! :)

Allison Torbanmini, help desk