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We’re going to talk about a few best practices for dashboards.
One of the challenges with putting together reporting, dashboards, and analytics is that it comes down to some soft skills around, “How do you communicate?” Effectively, dashboards say – they’re the communications of information. For the most part, it should be discrete information. Although some of it could be qualitative, we’re dealing in discrete data for the most part.
How are those things communicated? There’s some science and some art. But there are certainly some things that we found to work a lot better in communicating effectively, quickly, and efficiently.
Going back to what the primary objective of a dashboard is, a dashboard should be the communication of information very quickly: key objectives, key initiatives for the organization or for the department for this quarter or this year and to be able to get information across really promptly as in, in a couple of seconds, that information can be communicated.
Focus on critical issues
If somebody is scanning or looking at a dashboard, and they have to stare at it for 30 seconds to figure out what’s going on, you have a complete disaster occuring. Typically, the general population, executives, and people in the organization should be able to look at the dashboard and see what’s going on in a matter of seconds.
Going through some of the critical things that we think are good practices and also bad practices. Further, when trying to put together a dashboard, we find that many organizations effectively say, “Okay, let’s find or let’s pull together the most popular or the most common reports that we use and put them in a dashboard.” That’s not a good idea. That’s not the purpose of a dashboard. Just because reports are widespread, frequently used, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have them easily accessible.
Don’t use dashboards for simple reporting
Still, the purpose of the dashboard is not the dumping ground for all of the most common reports. The same can be said for all of the reports. It really should be, again, that critical information, key metrics, key initiatives, essential things you need to find out quickly.
The other thing we frequently see is that people take their most common or most popular or most important reports, and they turn those into visualizations of that data, meaning charts rather than tables.
Again, that’s not a particularly good practice. If we look at what is a good practice, indeed, you want to use visualization as much as possible, if not almost exclusively, in a dashboard. Ideally, you would figure out how to visually communicate all of the vital information in the form of charts and graphs rather than tables or lists of data. So yes, visualization is critical. Yes, that’s a best practice.
Yes, almost everything, ideally close to everything (if not everything), would be a visualization of the data in the dashboard. But simply taking the most popular or expected or even important reports and turning those into visualizations frequently does not do it.
Use the right KPIs
The next thing that we often see is that people take their top KPIs and put those into the dashboard. Again, that’s also wrong. Now, you may be saying, “Wait, what? Sean, we thought you love KPIs.” I do. I do love KPIs. Yet, I love solving problems more. I also love effective communication more.
Everything has a purpose, and everything should go somewhere particular. So, just because KPIs are key performance indicators, it doesn’t necessarily mean they should be in the dashboard. Maybe they should. Perhaps they shouldn’t. But you can’t just take KPIs and stick them in a dashboard and think, “Okay, now we have a dashboard.” Just because you should be tracking KPIs, it doesn’t mean that that’s a dashboard.
The number one best practice we suggest is to start with the questions you need to answer. What does this mean? It means either you individually if you’re the recipient of the dashboard or the viewer of the dashboard) or the questions that the key executives, the department managers, whatever it’s going to be, are looking to answer. There are two parts to this. One is to start with the questions, and number two is to play to the audience.
You may have a different set of questions that need to be answered by additional viewers. So one dashboard does not work for the entire organization. It may not even work for the whole department. It may only work for a certain level within the organization, a billing manager instead of a CFO, a COO, a hospital administrator, the owner of the billing company.
Consider each user, and that means every single user of a dashboard. So, suppose you’re going to bother having a dashboard for them at all. In that case, you need to sit down with them. “Let’s come up with a top few questions that you’re going to want to have answers for regularly and have that information viewable daily, weekly, really fast, and easily communicated to you so that you can see that and track it and know what’s going on.” It would help if you tied these to key initiatives and objectives for the business.
Those are a couple of dashboard best practices. We’ll come back and do more in another dashboard. But the summary is, don’t jam stuff in there. Don’t throw everything in there. Don’t take existing items and put them in there. Don’t just visualize and graph the information you’re already trying to communicate. Start with the questions. Start with the user, the appropriate questions for each user, and build from there.