UCL Human Resources


Innovative practice in the UCL Data and Insight Service

Zara Yates-Vanhorne and Martin Howells from the Data and insight Service, UCL Planning

Innovative practice is a core way of working for the Data & Insight Team, and our success depends on doing it well. We are responsible for developing data visualisations and dashboards that help staff make decisions in support of UCL's academic mission. But what makes a data visualisation work? And what does an effective, intuitive and engaging dashboard look like? 

We have to be innovative in designing dashboards for the same reason good product designers must be innovative: we never know what our end-product (for example, our PG Admissions dashboard) should look like before we begin. 

Traditional software development relies on customers specifying requirements in advance - but that is tricky when our customers can't sketch out the end-product either. But what our customers do know is which visualisations work and which don't. Our innovative practice is this customer-led dashboard development: working closely with our customers to iterate towards a data dashboard that they can use - even if at the beginning neither of us knew what it should look like.

What we've found, through trial, error  - and innovation - is that the best dashboard isn't the first dashboard, and it isn't even the most beautiful or whizzy one. It's the one that customers can actually use - which may be the fiftieth iteration. So, our innovative practice is how we harness trial, error and continuous improvement to design dashboards and data visualisations to help UCL staff improve their decision-making in support of UCL's academic mission. It can be summed up in a poem by Danish scientist and mathematician Piet Hein:
and err 
and err again 
but less 
and less 
and less."