KPIs or lists?

Chances are your dashboards need both.

Allan Wille, President and CEO.

At Klipfolio, experience has taught us that designing dashboards to ensure the effortless visibility of tactical, tangible, real-time operational data across departments and throughout the corporate hierarchy means distinguishing between two typical use cases: monitoring key metrics (KPIs), and providing operational lists. Both are important. Ignoring either can hurt your performance. And, when designing your business dashboards, knowing which to use is critical.

KPI visualization

You're no doubt familiar with the first case. The need to monitor a key metric – usually a numeric value expressed as a ratio or percentage – is well understood in the BI world. I've discussed KPIs in detail in past blogs and articles (see What is a KPI, Metric or a Measure? and Anatomy of a KPI). And a web search for KPI dashboards or operational BI will deliver examples of KPIs that represent business metrics.

These business metrics are invariably displayed as absolute values, ratios, or percentages. If they've been designed properly, they'll likely have associated contextual values, such as goals, averages, or benchmarks, that make it easier to evaluate the KPIs.


An example might be a KPI designed to help a marketing manager keep a close eye on campaign performance – one that tells them something like "Campaign A has delivered 400 leads over the past 30 days compared to our goal of 450 and our historical average of 435." Learn more about digital marketing KPIs to monitor your campaigns.

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The operational list

If you're like many BI users, you're not so familiar with the second use case: the operational list.

Lists might seem like old technology, but as data sources become more tactical and right-time in nature, lists make a lot of sense. Examples might include a prioritized list of leads or opportunities for a sales rep, or a list of high-priority incidents that need resolving by a support agent.

Although not KPIs in the strictest sense, these lists embody much of the same spirit – they are time sensitive, tactical in nature, actionable, and highly relevant to individuals in specific roles.

Which to use?

When should your real-time dashboards monitor KPIs and when should they deliver operational lists? It's important to note, dashboard definition depends on the roles of the people whose performance they are designed to maximize.

For executives, whose role is to manage, plan, and improve efficiencies and performance, KPIs are more useful. The sales campaign KPI metric already mentioned is a case in point.

On the other hand, front-line workers, such as sales reps and support agents, typically benefit more from operational lists. They need information like that provided by the leads and opportunities lists I've described. And they need lists that are easily understood, so they can prioritize and align tasks, and act quickly to fix problems and take advantage of opportunities.

It's not "either/or"

When it comes to KPIs vs. lists, it's not always an either/or situation, and chances are good that you'll not only need both types of operational dashboards, but that some of your dashboards will include both KPIs and lists.

KPIs and lists are, in fact, closely related, and lists will typically impact KPIs. Today's "open-incident/closed-incident" ratio, for example, which will be derived from a list critical for helping support agents perform effectively, is an important number for managers to track. And those same managers might want to monitor a list that tells them about deals over $100K, or sales to key customers, even though they aren't likely to take immediate action based on what they learn.

In the same way, sales reps, agents, and other workers whose day-to-day performance means focusing on key lists first and foremost, might well monitor KPIs as a valuable way to understand performance metrics and to perform better themselves.

Use cases and dashboard design

When designing web dashboards, it's important to keep the two use cases – KPIs and lists – in mind. It's essential to recognize that they address two types of needs. And it's critical to analyze the type of need you are addressing for each person's role, and to design your KPI or list dashboards accordingly. Dashboards for your executives and managers will likely be KPI-heavy, while those for front-line workers will tend toward the list end of the spectrum.

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