What is a business dashboard?
A business dashboard is an information management tool that is used to track KPIs, metrics, and other key data points relevant to a business, department, or specific process. Through the use of data visualizations, dashboards simplify complex data sets to provide users with at a glance awareness of current performance.
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Business dashboards take their name from automobile dashboards; in fact, when you think about it, business dashboards are used in much the same way as automobile dashboards. Under the hood of your vehicle, there may be hundreds of processes that impact the performance of your vehicle. Your dashboard summarizes these events using visualizations so you have the peace of mind to concentrate on safely operating your vehicle.
In today's business environment, the tendency is towards more data – so much so that we've come up with a new term to accurately describe it: Big Data. Managing and extracting real value from all that data is a key challenge facing modern businesses. In seeking a way to simplify data analysis and distribution, organizations often find themselves quickly dealing with data overload.
"A well designed dashboard report is a remarkable information management tool"
A well designed dashboard report is a remarkable information management tool. For drivers, dashboards allow them to focus on safely operating their vehicle and navigating the various road hazards presented on a daily commute. The same is true for business users: dashboards simplify complex processes into manageable, digestible chunks of information so they can focus on the day to day operation of the business.
Effective dashboard use can have a dramatic impact on business performance. Dashboards keep everyone on the same page and put the most important facts about your business where they can have most impact. Here are three common business cases for dashboards:
Getting more value out of your data
Data is one of the most valuable assets owned by your business. Putting this data to work, however, is often more difficult in practice. A well designed dashboard has the ability to inform users across the organization and provide on-demand access to core business metrics. Everyone on your team can use a dashboard to run a better business.
Consolidating and automating multiple data points
By their very nature, dashboards gather data from multiple data points to provide a single reporting interface. This reduces the amount of time and effort compiling reports, signing into multiple analytics services, and sharing data with everyone in the business. Dashboards offer an opportunity to expose metrics to a wider audience within your organization.
As the saying goes, "data doesn't lie." When it comes to inter-departmental activities, dashboards provide an objective view of current performance and can effectively serve as common ground for further dialogue. For instance, sales and marketing need alignment over the customer acquisition process. Dashboards can surface metrics that are relevant to each team in a way that is mutually understandable.
Features of dashboards
At the most basic level, business dashboards share certain common features. This section explores some of these features and how they may impact your dashboard project.
Selecting the right data visualization for your dashboard is an important part of dashboard design. Data visualizations are graphical representations of your data, and are used to simplify the transmission of sometimes complex information. It's much easier for an end-user to spot trends in a chart rather than sifting through a data file with hundreds, possibly thousands of entries. You can also check out our Data Visualization tool.
Here's a short guide with some information about the most common types of data visualizations in dashboard design.
Used to organize data into columns and rows.
Tables may contain other graphical elements such as bullet charts or sparklines.
Used to plot values on a chart to show trends over time.
Line charts may have multiple series to allow for comparisons.
Used to plot values on a chart to show comparisons within the same category.
Bar charts can be stacked to show how similar data sets relate.
Used to show progress towards an objective.
Gauge colour can be used to denote a target being achieved or not achieved.
Types of dashboards
Dashboards typically fall into two categories: operational dashboards and analytical dashboards. Choosing which type of dashboard to build depends on the type of problem you are trying to solve and your audience. You may end up building a dashboard that embodies characteristics of both operational and analytical.
Comparison of operational and analytical dashboards
Operational - Time sensitive
Analytical - Trends or deeper insights
Operational - Line of business managers, general workforce
Analytical - Executives, analysts
Operational - Tactical, short and medium-term objectives
Analytical - Strategy, long-term goals
Businesses today have a number of options for creating dashboards. Here's an overview of the 3 main types of dashboard software available.
Software is installed directly on computer or network. Dashboards are managed locally and typically published via printing or exporting as a PDF.
Software is accessible on any computer with an internet connection. Dashboards are built and designed using a web browser, and can be published across multiple devices.
Software is accessible on any mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet. Dashboards may be based on a native application or be pushed out from a cloud environment.
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Building and designing
An effective dashboard promotes action and changes behaviour. Before jumping into the design stage of your dashboard project, you need to start with a plan that has clear objectives and a well defined audience. Here are some tips to guide you along the path of responsible dashboard design.
Define your audience
Your dashboard project starts and ends with your audience. At the outset, you need to understand who will use your dashboard and how they will use the dashboard. Depending on your audience, you may be designing dashboards for consumption on mobile devices, web browsers, or LCD TV monitors. At the end of the process, you will integrate your audience's feedback into future iterations of your dashboard design.
Identify the key metrics
Ask the question: "What problem am I trying to solve?" The type of dashboard you create depends on the metrics and KPIs that you need to track. By identifying these metrics at the start of your project, you will understand what you're trying to accomplish. It will give you a clear roadmap for building your dashboard.
When designing a dashboard, take into account the context in which the dashboard will be viewed. You've already identified your audience, now it's time to select visuals that are meaningful to them. A CEO will want a compact dashboard with very clean, simple visualizations, while a business analyst will want to dive deeper into the data using more sophisticated visualizations.
Design for immediate action
A dashboard's strength depends on providing your audience with the current status of key metrics. An effective dashboard is designed to prompt a response from your audience, whether that means getting them to sound the alarm for an "all-hands" response or bringing up the issue at your next board meeting. The key is to establish and stick to a consistent design convention. To avoid confusion when using a myriad of prompts and indicators, always choose fewer colours and symbols.
Test, evaluate, and tweak
As your team uses the dashboard, they will undoubtedly have input as to its use and effectiveness. User-driven feedback allows you to make your dashboard as effective as possible, and address the specific objectives of your audience. Don't be afraid to ask your team for feedback.
Executives want information about their business in a way that is accessible, easy to understand and accurate.
Marketing professionals use dashboards to monitor their campaign performance so they can connect with their audience and increase brand recognition.
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