Summary: Business dashboards help organizations get a clear view of their business at a glance. But, some dashboards do a better job of that than others. What’s the difference between the two? What elements must an effective dashboard include? What separates a good dashboard from a worthless dashboard? In this article, we explore the most important aspects of a business dashboard, and explain why each is important.
As data volumes rise, business dashboard adoption has skyrocketed. More and more companies rely on dashboards to make sense of their data. They build dashboards with the hopes that it will turn mountains of data into actionable insights.
What happens? Some organizations actually meet this goal. Their dashboards become indispensable business tools. Their dashboards provide a competitive advantage.
Unfortunately, many businesses don’t see these results. Their dashboards don’t drive action. They don’t see much value at all. Their dashboards are little more than charts on a page.
What’s the difference?
More often than not, these businesses are missing one (or more) key aspects of an effective dashboard. When this happens, dashboards fail.
What are the most important aspects of a business dashboard? Today, let’s answer that question. I’ve listed three important aspects of a business dashboard below, with sub-points under each one containing more information:
1. The data
What is the most important aspect of a great dashboard? An easy-to-use interface? A wide range of charting options?
In reality, the most important aspect of a great dashboard is the part that gets the least amount of attention: The underlying data. More than any other aspect, the data will make or break a dashboard.
Now, I’m not just talking about your data quality. Obviously, you need clean data–that much is a given. If the data is inaccurate, you’re better off not having a dashboard.
But, besides quality, what other aspects of your underlying data are important in a good dashboard? Here are 2 areas you can’t ignore:
a. Automated data feeds
It’s a mistake I see all too often. Businesses create dashboards that rely on manual data updates. While it may seem feasible at the time, this mistake can cripple your dashboard.
Why is this bad? Besides the obvious time drain, it leads to out-of-date, inaccurate dashboards. While it may work for a little while, the employee in charge of updating the dashboard will eventually forget to make an update. Or, maybe they’ll make a mistake as they’re updating the dashboard.
The results can be disastrous. The business goes on using the dashboard, without knowing the data is out of date or inaccurate–resulting in misinformed decisions.
If you plan on using your dashboard as a decision-making tool, you must automate your data feeds. Don’t make your dashboard’s accuracy rely on manual processes.
b. A complete picture
Another big problem I frequently see with dashboards: They only tell part of the story. The dashboard only integrates with one aspect of a company’s data, but doesn’t combine data from different sources.
For instance, a dashboard might pull data from the ERP system, but ignore data in the warehouse management and online ordering system. Some businesses still have a good amount of data floating around in spreadsheets–which doesn’t get included in the dashboard.
If you want an effective dashboard, it must give a complete view of your data. Also, as explained below, sometimes this includes data from outside sources.
“Pulling in brand health measures, advertising, sales, satisfaction, new product launches, website traffic, social measures, weather, etc. is very effective for understanding what is going on with a brand,” says Rudy Nadilo, President North America, Dapresy. “While the pure researcher may argue that they are not perfectly aligned, it does help the data consumer see everything that is going on. And the reality is that senior management will ask questions about everything that impacts the business anyway.”
2. The display
Once you have the data portion of your dashboard covered, the next step is presentation. How can you display your data in a useful way? Let’s boil this point down to three crucial parts:
a. Actionable metrics
Too many businesses make the same mistake with their dashboards: They clutter up their dashboards with vanity metrics. Their dashboards may look nice, but they don’t lead to action. They’re nothing more than charts on a page.
The key to an effective dashboard: Knowing the difference between vanity metrics and actionable metrics. What’s the difference? As explained below, actionable metrics are those that help you make a decision.
“Actionable metrics are key. I spent a long time revising the metrics for our company dashboard and one of the things I realized was I would constantly clutter up my dashboard with numbers that really weren’t important enough to provide any useful action items,” says Matt Ham, Owner of Computer Repair Doctor. “I’d too often focus on vanity metrics or including data just because I had access to it. Eventually I adopted the notion that I’d only include metrics in my dashboard that led me to clear action items.
I went through our entire dashboard and removed or replaced anything that wouldn’t help me make a decision. I started building dashboard items for the sake of making specific decisions, not simply to display stats. This transformed my dashboard from a list of vanity metrics to an actionable set of numbers that gave me a realtime pulse of my company’s health!”
“One of the biggest mistakes I find in business dashboards are features that are not clearly defined or are difficult to navigate,” says Brian Clark, CEO & Program Director of United Medical Education. “When you build a business dashboard you should make all aspects clear and concise so even aspects that are not used regularly or by all employees are simple to find and understand. This will help employees assume tasks that are normally performed by other employees without a huge learning curve improving the flexibility of your team.”
In general, dashboard organization problems usually stem from dashboards that try to do too much. They try to include too many features, or too much data. They try to fit as much information as possible on the screen. This negates the power of dashboards: Simplicity.
Avinash Kaushik summed it up nicely in his article, Five Rules of High Impact Web Analytics Dashboards: “If your dashboard does not fit on one page, you have a report, not a dashboard. This rule is important because it encourages rigorous thought to be applied in selecting the golden dashboard metric. It acts as a natural barrier to cramming in too much information, makes data presentation easier, makes the dashboard more understandable.”
Now, what happens if you need to include more data than can fit on one screen? In these cases, use a tabbed dashboard. A tabbed dashboard lets you segment different data categories into separate tabs. It helps you create organized dashboards that don’t overwhelm the users.
With dashboards, one size doesn’t fit all. Different users want to see different data. Or, they may want to see the same data, but organized differently.
The problem is, many dashboards still display a pre-determined set of metrics in a pre-set layout. While each department might get their own dashboard, users within that department are stuck with a static layout.
If different users want different information, the dashboard creator gets stuck in an endless loop of customization, creating separate versions of the same dashboard. This not only wastes time, it frustrates the users.
A modern dashboard must include customization options. The user should have the option to pick and choose which data to display, and how to display it. This lets the dashboard creator build a single dashboard that users can customize to meet their needs.
“The most common – and deadly – mistake when moving from PowerPoint to online reporting is the desire to show everything to everyone,” says Nadilo. “But the expression “less is more” should be the rule of thumb. It is important to scope out the dashboard and get the organization to agree on what the various user groups should see. It is best to limit the majority of users’ access to specific areas of the information portal – ideally those that show results as infographics. Then, allow line or middle managers access to dashboards and traditional reports.”
3. The delivery
The final aspect of an effective dashboard is delivery. How will you deliver access to your dashboard?
The “delivery” aspect of your dashboards largely depends on your business, and your dashboard’s goals. However, there are a couple of key points to consider:
a. Go beyond the PC
You may have the best, most useful dashboard ever created. It might include actionable data that drives decision-making. It might extend across the entire business, delivering relevant data to every user.
But, if it’s not accessible whenever and wherever your users need it, is it a useful dashboard?
The fact is, employees aren’t tied to their desks anymore. Dashboards shouldn’t be tied to the desktop.
Now, this goes beyond smartphones and tablets, though mobile-accessible dashboards are important. Your dashboard must be accessible to your employees whenever they need it. For instance, I’ve seen some manufacturing companies place monitors on their shop floors just for dashboards. These dashboards track progress and goals throughout the day, and are always accessible to the employees.
b. Go beyond the screen
To be effective, a dashboard requires user interaction. After all, if you ignore your dashboard, it doesn’t do much good.
But, the problem is, you can’t possibly stare at your dashboard every second of the day. If you rely on that dashboard to monitor the real-time health of your business, what can you do? How can you spot problems if you’re not looking at the dashboard?
A good dashboard should provide the option to set up intelligent email or SMS alerts. You can set these alerts to notify you if your data exceeds or drops below a certain threshold. These instant alerts will help you address problems as they happen.
“With today’s dashboards, we can easily send alerts and require follow up,” says Nadilo. “For example, if a region’s sales performance drops below a certain threshold, that manager should receive an alert with all associated metrics and be required to submit an associated action plan. As you build dashboards at the individual sales rep level, you should also report on the key drivers of business.”
These are 3 of the most important aspects of a business dashboard. What do you think? Would you add anything to this list? If you would like to add anything to this list, I’d love to hear it. Feel free to share in the comments.
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