With trials for the 2012 Olympic Games in London almost complete, as a diehard trackie, I can't help but reflect on the amazing standards that athletes must meet or exceed in order to qualify for their respective events. For instance, the "A" standard for the men's 100 meter event is 10.18 seconds – that's faster than the time it would take for many of us to boot up our computers. The standard for women's high jump is 1.95 meters or about 6 feet, 4.7 inches – so an "A" standard athlete could easily clear the height of a very tall person. Olympic hopefuls work diligently to meet (or exceed) these high standards. Likewise, in a quest for excellence, we in the business intelligence world should strive to improve the design of our BI dashboards – the ones that guide our daily decision-making. We should be reviewing their effectiveness at least yearly. To that end, we've compiled a simple checklist to guide your dashboards towards the "A" standard.
Whittle them down to only the most relevant and timely information. With all the excitement around big data and the need to analyze vast amounts of information in order to spot trends, it's easy to be swept away in a deluge of data and be distracted from what really matters. As excited as you (or the users you serve) may be to display all kinds of new information, remember that some data is a distraction rather than relevant to the decision-making process. So be cautious of the information overload that can hinder the effectiveness of your dashboards. Each organization must determine what really matters to decision-makers (this will vary between them) and center dashboards around the metrics most relevant to each department.
Implement appropriate design. When it comes to dashboards, looks do matter. But dashboards aren't just eye candy. They've become a standard point of reference for business managers and executives who need to monitor company operations – often at a glance – in order to make timely decisions. In a 2011 interview with Dashboard Insight, Stephen Few, author of bestselling books on dashboard design and data visualization best practices (and also inventor of the bullet graph), explains that "dashboards support rapid performance monitoring, and can only do so effectively if they are designed in specific ways to work with human eyes and brains." Few also explained that:
"Dashboard content must be organized in a way that reflects the nature of the information and that supports efficient and meaningful monitoring. Important items should [be] more visually prominent that less important items…and items that ought to be scanned in a particular order ought to be arranged in a manner that supports that sequence of visual attention."
- Pervasive Hurdles to Effective Dashboard Design
Appropriate design also encompasses the idea of responsive design, an approach to web design that supports the layout of web pages regardless of the visitor's screen size and orientation. Since no organization is immune to the BYOD phenomenon, responsive design in business intelligence applications is increasingly important to support the various mobile devices that are being introduced into the corporate environment.
Break them up into multiple screens. Screen size is the biggest limitation when it comes to dashboard design – you can only cram so much into the resolution of a typical laptop screen. Scrolling is not ideal. So how can you fit everything a user needs to see? Think of your dashboards like websites with navigation and multiple screens. Perhaps the first screen is a summary dashboard, a condensed version of the user's most important KPIs. The subsequent dashboard views can present more details and other views. For an example, see arcplan's free trial. It contains a dashboard demo with multiple screens for 2 different types of users.
You could also give your users the option to maintain simple desktop widgets that keep them informed on their performance metrics. arcplan Engage allows even casual business users the ability to save live snapshots or portions of dashboards to their BI Wall so they can benefit from existing information without having their own custom dashboard.
If your dashboards don't measure up, it's time to take stock of their shortcomings and improve the experience for your users. In addition to the guidelines above, here’s a PDF on how to create successful BI dashboards for your team. The Olympic Games roll around every four years, but thankfully you don't have to wait that long to make your dashboards "A" standard.
*Special Interview With Stephen Few, Dashboard and Data Visualization Expert. Dashboard Insight.com, 2011.