There are several variants for the definition for dashboards, but one that perhaps fits best is the one proposed by Stephen Few in 2005:
“A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives, consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.”
Many of the key items that define a dashboard are nicely synthesized in this definition. However, the following modest clarification is called for: Information in a dashboard needs to be understood at a glance, and should be used to monitor the state of affairs of specific activities or operations. Although the information presented should not exceed some boundaries depending on the application, it does not necessarily need to confine itself to the limits of a page. Aggregation, visual presentation and, when appropriate, navigation, will play important roles. If a user needs to “drill down” to get more information, we are not presenting all the necessary information he or she needs in a single page and it may not be appropriate to do so.
The analogy of the dashboard is taken from the car’s dashboard, which provides information on the critical variables in the operation of a car. This information is in turn used by the driver to make decisions related to the operation of driving the car, like controlling the speed at which the car travels or the amount of gas in it. Similarly, information in a dashboard is presented using familiar images and concepts, like stoplights, charts and dials that help give transparency, meaning, context and control (Is a company on, above or below its sales targets? How fast is revenue growing?). Effective and usable BI dashboards can help increase a company’s productivity and bottom line significantly as they help users at all level make sense of their data and gain insightful information out of it.
Information in a business dashboard needs to be aggregated and consolidated at a high-enough level to be relevant and appealing to the target audience. Specific dashboards may be designed to track varied corporate functions, and should be named accordingly. Some may be targeted at the enterprise level like an executive or enterprise dashboard, while others may be specific to a particular function or unit like a sales dashboard, or a customer service dashboard.
An effective dashboard is one that quickly conveys to a user, the state of affairs of the enterprise or a business unit (monitor), providing the user with actionable information needed to make better, faster and more reliable business decisions (manage). A business “state of affairs” would be represented by a set of specific metrics, measures or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that measure critical areas ofthe business, represented with dials, charts with trends, colored maps, or other visual elements. Businesses or Business Units will establish goals for each of their Key Performance Indicators. The KPI values will be compared with the goals and both value and comparison will be represented visually, giving users context for understanding the KPI.
For example, a Key Performance Indicator for a Customer Service call center may be the average time a customer waits for his or her call to be answered by a representative. The specific goal may be a customer wait-time of less than 60 seconds on average. We may represent this as a dial with values between 0 and 120 or more (seconds a customer waits), where any value above 60 will be coded in red, any value between 45 and 60 seconds will be coded in yellow, and any value between 0 and 45 will be coded in green. The dial will reflect the actual average time customers waited, while the color-coded background will immediately provide users with a clear picture of how the customer service function is performing relative to the specified goal.A second indicator to go in this Customer Service dashboard might show whether the average time the customer waits to have her call taken by a representative is growing (average trending upwards over time), or becoming smaller (average trending downwards over time). To further the analysis, a user could drill down to display individual representatives, along with the number of calls serviced during the day, week and month, and the average time the representative spends on each call. The call center manager may use this information to determine whether it’s more cost-effective to increase work-hours, or hire additional staff.
Image Source: MicroStrategy
In the Business Intelligence world, reports are many times the unit of work, and metrics or KPIs are encapsulated in them. Several reports would make up a dashboard. For example, an executive dashboard for a retail chain may include in one view a graphical representation of:
- The best and worst performing stores
- Revenue of the last week vs. the average of the prior 52 weeks
- Impact of a promotion in one region vs. the average in that region in the prior month
Who Needs Dashboards?
Traditionally, dashboards have been directed towards managers and executives, who need a high level view of business performance through financial and operational data. As Business Intelligence penetrates the front line of businesses, the users and content of dashboards is changing. Business performance is now being monitored from the whole enterprise to the store level. An IT dashboard may look at indicators such as service uptime, average response times, throughput, peak system usage times, etc. A Marketing dashboard might contain the success rate of the latest email or social media campaign, the success rate trend of the last 5 campaigns, cost of gaining a new customer, customer turnover rate, etc.
Anyone who monitors and/or manages performance in an organization is a potential target audience for the use of dashboards.
What Are The Options?
While custom built dashboards have been a part of large-scale implementations at big companies, the easy availability of large amounts of structured and unstructured data, extensive use of reporting technologies, and newly added features of BI products like the inclusion of powerful visual controls and analytics, are making dashboards even more attractive and user friendly and a must have in any organization. The explosion in the adoption of mobile devices like smart phones and tablet computers has further fueled the use of dashboards outside of the prescribed location of desktop computers in offices, spreading business intelligence throughout the organization and helping create a culture of data-driven decision making.
The mobile revolution has transformed the way we receive and consume information. Our phones have evolved and now can do much more than make calls and tablet computers have been reborn. The opportunities created by these developments for businesses are enormous, and BI vendors are rushing to fill the need for mobile dashboards.
The traditional BI vendors have extended their offerings to include mobile offerings to their traditional BI product suites. MicroStrategy, Cognos and SAP AG all now offer mobile distribution of reports and dashboards. New vendors are emerging as well, like Roambi and SurfBI. that have focused on delivering dashboards to mobile devices, both smartphones and tablets.
All of these mobile BI solutions provide users with native interfaces in the device of their choice, allowing users to interact with dashboards in an easy and familiar way that lets them focus on the business decisions and supporting data, rather than the technology itself.
Image Source: HARKENDATA Retail Operations Mobile Dashboard
Many software packages now provide custom dashboards that help users manage particular operations. These dashboards are limited to the data managed by the particular software package or system. For example, SalesForce.com allows users to create sales dashboards using the information captured by their sales automation product, and the SAP® Manufacturing Integration and Intelligence (SAP MII) application provides a Plant Manager dashboard, with information captured by manufacturing modules.
Business Intelligence products take a more generic approach, allowing users to build dashboards with any data available for reporting. Dashboard solutions by business intelligence companies leverage the capabilities of their platforms, using already familiar elements as building blocks for dashboards and deliver them both to the desktop and mobile devices.
Image Source: MicroStrategy
MicroStrategy 9allows users to design dashboards that deliver maximum visual impact in a format optimized for quick absorption, using a combination of tables, graphics, gauges, dials and other graphical indicators, as well as conditional formatting, free-form labels, borders and background colors, all using a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) design environment. Dashboards can be cross-functional or domain specific. Organizations can leverage all enterprise data and reach all individuals across the enterprise with visually compelling displays, both on the web and mobile devices.
Image Source: SAP BusinessObjects
SAP BusinessObjects™ Dashboards software (formerly SAP BusinessObjects Xcelsius® Enterprise) delivers interactive dashboards to the enterprise. It provides a drag-and-drop design environment, and dashboards can be delivered to users through a variety of different interfaces. Users gain broad visibility into the current status of the business, enabling them to track how their organization is performing against strategic goals, and how day-to-day execution is aligned with corporate strategy. The interactive displays make it easy to interact with the data to perform “what-if” scenarios.
- Image Source: IBM Cognos
IBM Cognos Business Intelligence10 also includes a dashboard component that translates information from various corporate systems into visually rich presentations using gauges, maps, charts, and other graphical elements to show multiple results together. It allows users to interact with the data they need using rich visual displays, making it easy to explore and filter data to gain insight quickly.
In addition to the above leading BI solutions, there are a number of smaller companies carving a space in the market for dashboards with success. Products like Tableau, QlikTech and Spotfire have been making waves in the marketplace with their snazzy visuals and lighter architectures that remove the barriers of entry and enable the creation and consumption of dashboards by all users.
Benefits of Dashboards
More and more organizations are turning to dashboards to help them understand and manage their businesses. The benefits that dashboards provide to organizations are many. At a tactical level these include:
- The Ability of business users to reach and consolidate relevant data from one or multiple sources
- Organization and presentation of information in a way that can be absorbed immediately by business users
- Effective and standard formatting of business reports.
At a more strategic level, these benefits result in:
- The Effective monitoring of business operations
- Effective communication of information
- Effective sharing of information
- Better decision-making process
Like any project, embarking on a “Dashboard project” may not be a walk in the park. There are many implementation pitfalls but here are few key ones to watch for as you embark upon your own dashboard deployment:
- The Data Inaccuracy: For dashboards, like all other reporting solutions, the data displayed has to be absolutely correct. If users cannot trust the data provided, they will not use it. Nothing will kill the use of a dashboard faster than incorrect data.
- Lack of Stakeholder Involvement: Different users in an organization will need different information, aggregated at different levels to be helpful to them. Dashboards should be targeted to users and developed according to the users needs. Involvement of the end users in a dashboard project will greatly impact the adoption rate of the final product.
- Disconnect with Business Goals: While dashboards can indeed act as a powerful tool in the hands of the decision makers, they can also cause information overload and confusion if they are not properly aligned with the business goals of an organization (enterprise level) or of a particular business unit (custom dashboards). It is important to develop the appropriate indicators, metrics and/or KPIs needed to effectively monitor each business area, aligning the dashboard to directly support the organization’s goals.
- Lack of Context: The measured indicators are nothing more than numbers without the appropriate context. Forecasted, high and low values, variances and/or trends for an indicator are examples of additional information that will provide an immediate grasp of the meaning of the value of the indicator.
- Unattractive Visual Delivery: Dashboards need to convey a large amount of information quickly, in a way it’s compelling and intuitive. Arrangement and location of information, as well as the way the information is presented are very important in the final product.
Many factors have contributed to the increased adoption of dashboards in different areas of organizations big and small. Dashboards, however, are not a one-size-fits-all proposition. While realizing the benefits that dashboards bring to organizations may take a little more than good intentions and a box of software, following the right approach and using the right tools can help organizations achieve their vision. Additionally, all dashboards need to consistently evolve and be updated to keep themselves relevant to the changing needs of the end users and the organization as a whole.
About the Author
Mr. Gonzalez is Director of Industry Solutions at HARKENDATA, where he is responsible for defining, designing and developing BI solutions for HARKENDATA’s customers. In his previous role, Mr. Gonzalez was a Consulting Manager for HARKENDATA for 4 years, leading the implementation of BI projects for several public sector clients. Prior to that, Mr. Gonzalez worked 9 years for MicroStrategy, a leading BI vendor, where he held multiple senior consulting and engineering positions. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the ITESM, in Monterrey, Mexico.
HARKENDATA, is an industry leading consultancy that delivers best in class business intelligence, analytics and data warehousing strategy, architecture and implementation services that enable organizations to realize the full benefits of their data and information assets. Learn more at www.HARKENDATA.com.
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