How should Decision Support Systems present apparently "Bad News"?

On Saturday, January 22, 2005, a special issue of DSS News was sent to all 1066  subscribers. The purpose of the special mailing was to showcase some rapidly  approaching deadlines for submitting papers to conferences especially AMCIS 2005.  I had been contemplating adding a conference announcement list to DSS News for  some time and the project kept being pushed aside.  With some conference deadlines  approaching, I wanted to act to support the efforts of those who organize workshops,  meetings and conferences relevant to building and understanding decision support  systems. So I hurriedly created the special mailing.

Doing a task in a hurry is often a mistake and I apologize for the informal nature  of the mailing, but Saturday, January 22, 2005 was busy and hurried. I actually initiated  the mailing myself at Topica.COM, the web-based service that DSSResources.COM uses to  maintain the DSS News email list and support sending the bi-weekly newsletters. 

For almost 4 years, until September 2004, DSS News was sent using Topica's free email  discussion lists. In the beginning, DSS News actually ran some Topica supplied ads.  The free service is limited to fewer than 1000 subscribers and DSS News outgrew the  service. That's good news for the DSS Community, but it meant that to grow our subscriber  base we needed a new email service.  After some investigation, we moved to Topica's  permission-based email marketing solution. The annual cost of the service is about  USD $500. Readers can take a web-based tour of the interface and find out about the  main features of the hosted application at .  Currently, DSSResources.COM  revenues pay the cost for maintaining and mailing DSS News.

I was in a hurry so rather than having the DSSResources.COM Webmaster, my oldest son Alex,  handle the mailing, I did it myself. Right! We were both still learning about how to use  the many features of the new system. I created a Campaign which is Topica lingo for a mailing  using the touted "point-and-click content entry system". I decided to try out Topica's  Tracking feature and rather than sending the mailing to a more target audience I sent it  to "All Subscribers". We have defined a number of audiences based upon email addresses  and profile information. I also "cleaned up" the list.

At Topica "As forms are submitted, campaigns sent, messages opened, links clicked  and transactions completed, valuable intelligence is being gathered, automatically  enriching your Topica database. Topica provides detailed reporting to help you  understand this information, so you can optimize your efforts. Daily list activity  reports track the overall size of your list ... Real-time delivery reports confirm  that campaigns were sent per your specifications and, more importantly, show you  how recipients responded to those campaigns by detailing opens, clicks and purchases  per link, per recipient, so you can see exactly who clicked what." So Topica has a  data-driven decision support subsystem. Topica is primarily providing a transaction processing  subsystem for subscriptions and an information dissemination subsystem.  The  decision support subsystem is quite rudimentary.

So what does the DSS Conferences mailing have to do with "Bad News"?

On Sunday morning, January 23, 2005, I checked the DSS Conferences Campaign Detail  Performance Summary. We had 130 bounces. The spam filters are wrecking havoc on email  delivery, but the "real-time" delivery reports showed another troubling number. The  Subscriber Activity Reports showed that 41 subscribers were "deleted" on January 22,  2005. My initial reaction was "why did so many people unsubscribe?" Only 2 subscribers  were unsubscribed on January 16 with 36 accounts disabled (mailing for DSS News vol. 6, issue 2)  and 14 subscribers were deleted on January 2, 2005 (mailing for DSS News vol. 6, issue 1). I  was concerned that those 41 people "unsubscribed" because of the unexpected DSS Conferences  mailing. I was also blaming myself for hurrying with the mailing and doing it myself.  Bad news!

In the Data-Driven DSS tradition, I decided to drill-down into the details of who  unsubscribed and see if I could figure out what had happened. This was all happening  on a Sunday morning. I went into the subscriber database and viewed the list of deleted  subscribers. To my dismay, I noticed that my friend Murray Turoff at New Jersey Institute  of Technology had been deleted on January 22, 2005. I did some additional investigation  and finally decided to send Murray an email.  I had 2 email addresses for him and copied  the message to both figuring that the subscribed account may have been disabled.

My email (1/23/2005 10:56AM) read: "Hi Murray-- I'm writing an Ask Dan! column titled How  should DSS present 'bad news'? One example that I'm planning to use relates to the  web-based data I received from today as part of managing my mailing lists.  Yesterday, I sent out an email on DSS Conferences to promotes some Calls for Papers,  ISCRAM 2005, ISDSS 2005, etc. and when I checked my stats this morning 41 addresses had  been unsubscribed from the DSS News mailing list. Some had been removed because the address  was bouncing and others through voluntary removal.  One of the addresses on the unsubscribe  list was yours...Any help or comments you can give me about the unsubscribe would be  appreciated.  It was "bad news" to see your email address on the list."

Murray responded (1/23/2005 6:44PM) "Dan I never did anything that should have removed my  email address. ... I have no idea what happened.  Once in a while the NJIT computer could  reject mail when the mail server goes down, but I don't recall that happening. They have a  spam system and it should not have rejected the DSS newsletter.  I know I got one recently  or in December at least." Murray's response made me feel better, but I knew I still had a  problem.

After additional investigation, I determined that we were deleting subscribers after 4  hard bounces.  So spam filters are causing problems for DSS News. Please let your friends  know that if they haven't received DSS News in awhile that they should make sure it is  "white listed" in their email spam filter.

How should Decision Support Systems present apparently "Bad News"?

Sunday, January 23, 2005 was not a good day for me.  I'm emotionally involved with DSS  News and DSSResources.COM and my rudimentary DSS was giving me "bad news". I felt better  after receiving Murray's email, but I continued my inquiry into what we as DSS designers  could and should do when a system might present negative information, also known as "Bad  News". Information presentation is especially important in DSS because a decision-maker is  intended as the user of the system and hence will act and react to the information.  The  more important the decisions that will be made using a DSS, the more attention that needs  to be given to building the DSS and especially to the information displays.

I'm a DSS generalist and not a specialist in the intricacies of information display, and  even a quick foray into this narrow, specialized topic shows how much knowledge needs to  be "pulled together" to build "mission critical" DSS and to understand factors impacting  the outcomes of using DSS. My experience demonstrated that 24-7 web-based operations can  cause additional problems when apparent negative information is received by decision makers  on evenings/weekends. Then the stress associated with decision making may be harder to  resolve. I experienced a common problem with drill-down -- atomic facts without a context  can be disconcerting. Also, the drill-down to who unsubscribed had inadequate detail.  I  could see the date when a person was unsubscribed, but I couldn't tell if it was the result  of a rule, i.e., more than 4 hard bounces, manual unsubscribe by the administrator, or a  voluntary unsubscribe. Also, it became evident that presenting an absolute number like 41  doesn't show the meaning or significance of the value. The red down arrow in the display  was also disconcerting. In a DSS, it is important to create context and facilitate gathering  follow-up information.

In my search for suggestions about improving DSS information displays, I turned to my  library and Google. While surfing a few years ago, I had found Edward Tufte's  blog ( and an Ask E.T. question about Executive Decision  Support Systems. So I checked there. Tufte is a Professor Emeritus at Yale University,  where "he taught courses in statistical evidence, information design, and interface design".  Tufte was asked to share guiding principals or "best practices" in the presentation of Key  Performance Indicators to the senior executives of a corporation. 

Let me paraphrase and summarize Tufte's ideas (check his site):

1. "ask first of all: What are the thinking tasks that the displays are supposed to  help with?"

2. build systematic checks of data quality into the display and analysis system. 

3. good management information systems are boring.

4. "use simple designs to show well-labeled information in tables and graphics; displays  should often be accompanied by annotation, details from the field, and other supplements."

5. "from a display, decision-makers need to learn what the story is and whether they can  believe the story."

6. "most of all, the right evidence needs to be located, measured, and displayed. And  different evidence might be needed next quarter or next year."

I also reviewed some user interface design articles and books and I want to recommend David  Tegarden's tutorial on "Business Information Visualization" that appeared in Communications of  the Association for Information Systems (CAIS) in 1999. Perhaps I can expand on what the experts  have concluded in another Ask Dan?

This experience reinforced the importance of being careful in interpreting data; when data is  presented in a negative way it is easy to focus on the worst interpretation of the data rather  than upon multiple interpretations. Also, good information display is important in building  DSS whether the information will be interpreted as negative or positive. A green up arrow can  cause as many, if not more, problems as a red down arrow.  Many of us are actually complacent  and accepting of "Good News", even if the facts don't support that initial conclusion.

Decision makers need all of the information that is realistic to provide, intentionally or  unintentionally delaying, ignoring or distorting some data because it might be "bad" news is  always a mistake.

In retrospect, I am strongly reminded that who gets decision support information is important  and it is especially important to help decision makers interpret the information. In general,  it is impossible to completely remove the ambiguity and provide the complete decision context  in a DSS (but we should try!). This information constraint is why I advocate building DSS and  keeping decision makers in the loop rather than using decision automation in semi-structured,  ambiguous decision situations.

This experience also reminded me that sometimes apparent "Bad News" can turn into "Good News"  and vice versa. In this case, the "Bad News" resulted in this column. Please keep reading DSS  News and tell your friends.  Let's continue to build a strong DSS community.


Teagarden, D., "Business Information Visualization", Communications of the Association for  Information Systems, Volume 1, Article 4, January, 1999 at URL .

Tufte, E. "Executive Decision Support Systems", Ask E.T., at URL .

The above response is from Power, D., How should Decision Support Systems present apparently "Bad News"?  DSS News, Vol. 6, No. 4, January 30, 2005.

Last update: 2005-08-16 21:52
Author: Daniel Power

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