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Business Dashboards: An Introductory Guide

The History of Business Dashboards

The evolution of business dashboards can be traced back four decades. In the early 1970s, businesses were using decision support systems (DSS) to perform business intelligence tasks. They were originally modeled from automobile dashboards, which provide the status of critical functions, like gasoline levels or speed, to drivers.

In the 1980s, these systems were modernized in a technology known as Executive Information Systems (EIS). Although EISs were considered a technological advancement, users were plagued with slow turnaround times for refreshing and managing data.

When the information age ramped up in the 1990s, concepts such as data warehousing and online analytical processing propelled quicker dashboard functionality.

After KPIs became more widely adopted in the late 1990s, business dashboard use soared. During this era, Microsoft was a key player in promoting a concept known as the Digital Nervous System. Digital dashboards were deemed a component of the Digital Nervous System.

Fast-forward to the business intelligence dashboards that are available today: dashboard visualization has become an industry standard that is widely adopted by analytics professionals, students, and directors of global organizations.

Data Sources

The fuel for business dashboards is data, so each one needs to have one or more data sources. Without data, the dashboard will not show the user anything. Data can be connected through an API, flat file, or database. Once data flows into the interface, the dashboard will come to life. A sales team might use a business dashboard to connect data from their customer relationship management system (CRM) and their website to gain insight into what products prospects are interested in.

Data Visualizations

Visualizations enable users to gain insights from data more quickly than flat files or tables. This is because visualizations summarize the aggregate data and the human brain processes images faster than lists of words and numbers. Examples include bar graphs, pie charts, and line graphs. In this way, digital visualizations are just like automobile dashboards, which use data visualizations in the form of speedometers and fuel gauges.

Filters

Many dashboards include an element of interactivity so users can explore data sets as needed. This process is often called data discovery or self-service analytics. Filters can include date ranges, data sources, geographic regions, departments, or product SKUs.

KPIs

Key performance indicators are the metrics most important to users. These are represented in dashboards either as a part of visualizations or tables. Common KPIs include revenue, cost, number of sales, profit margin, and profit. They can be segmented for more granular insight using a filter or toggle.

Navigation Menu

Most modern analytics platforms include a navigation menu to allow users to move from dashboard to dashboard. Menus make it possible to visualize many different aspects of data for different audiences and are a great fit for enterprise organizations.

 

Benefits of Business Dashboards

Companies need to make informed decisions quickly. That’s where business dashboards can help. In addition, they integrate business information across the enterprise to improve workflow management across business functions. The benefits of business dashboards are summarized below:

Better Decision-Making

The biggest benefit of a business dashboard is better decision-making. It allows users to look at summaries of aggregated data to make informed business decisions. Not only is data easier to consume, but it can be analyzed faster. For example, an advertising executive may want to determine the success of a national TV ad campaign his company ran. A business dashboard can show brand awareness metrics over time on a line graph along with the dates the campaign ads ran. The executive could also see how that awareness coincided with sales over the same period. The data may suggest the TV campaigns were a success and should continue to run in the future.    

 

Save Time

Business dashboards save users time because they aggregate data from multiple sources and reveal the most important KPIs. Without dashboards, organizations have to manually compile data from multiple sources and aggregate the data themselves. The manual approach requires more resources than an automated dashboard and increases the chance of human error. Automation frees valuable time to perform more detailed analyses and improves employee satisfaction with a reduction in mundane, repetitive tasks. According to Forbes, we create over 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily, and the last two years alone created 90% of all data ever created. This amount of data can overwhelm any organization, but it can be prioritized to save time.    

Improved Goal-Setting

Organizations can make more data-driven decisions with goal-setting because the right data can be delivered at the right time. This leads to more accurate benchmarks and actionable goals at every level of the organization. Executives can see how the business is performing in real-time throughout the quarter and can make tactical pivots if they notice an objective isn’t working. With new information, goals and expectations can be adjusted as needed. When an organization’s data is visible throughout a company, KPIs can be aligned to business goals to improve business processes.    

KPIs

Key performance indicators are the metrics most important to users. These are represented in dashboards either as a part of visualizations or tables. Common KPIs include revenue, cost, number of sales, profit margin, and profit. They can be segmented for more granular insight using a filter or toggle.

More Flexibility

Modern business dashboards include device flexibility, which allows users to access and interact with dashboards anywhere, on any device. Anyone in the organization can have easy access to insights from aggregated data without the need to find them manually. Salespeople can showcase relevant dashboards on tablets in client meetings, and retail service people can show customers personalized purchase and performance history. Executives and other decision-makers can monitor company KPIs on their mobile phones and quickly make adjustments. This has the added benefit of creating an improved customer experience.    

Shared Insights

Full implementation of an analytics platform allows people throughout an enterprise to gain visibility into KPIs. For example, a finance department at a manufacturing company may want to see how marketing and sales impact revenue for budget planning. A business dashboard allows anyone in the finance department to access this data in real time. Leaders in an IT department may want to understand how employee retention in their department compares to the overall organization to determine if their management methods are effective from an employee satisfaction standpoint.

Business Dashboards Best Practices

Involve Users in Each Phase of Development

Involve users in the planning phase of the business dashboard to ensure detailed requirements are collected from the internal stakeholders who use it. The dashboard will miss the mark entirely if it is developed without feedback throughout its design and development, as many assumptions can be made. This could result in many iterations of the dashboard to get it to work optimally. An agile approach with continuous feedback is the most effective way to approach each dashboard project. In the discovery phase, developers may find multiple dashboards need to be created to satisfy everyone’s need. These will then need to be prioritized in a project plan and agreed upon by each stakeholder.

Define Dashboard Objectives

The planning and design phases should be driven by concrete objectives from each stakeholder. For example, the sales department may say they want to see a high-level dashboard with the ability to drill down to specific regions and product SKUs. This type of dashboard is meant to serve sales leaders and executives, so they can see the most successful products and highest performing salespeople in each region. Company resources can then be deployed accordingly to push marketing dollars in a lagging region or to shift messaging to align with demand in a particular region.    

Customize Views

Each stakeholder should have their own segmented view of a dashboard that aligns with their specific goals. For example, it would not be helpful for a financial department to look at ad copy performance data for the marketing department. These requirements will be uncovered in the planning phase. Platforms capable of including more than one dashboard are ideal because they can serve multiple audiences. MicroStrategy’s Dossiers are enterprise-grade business dashboards that can satisfy this need. One dashboard can rarely please all stakeholders, so separate customized dashboards for each stakeholder group may be ideal.

Emphasize Data in Order of Importance

In the requirements-gathering and planning phase, project managers should determine what the most important KPIs are for each stakeholder group. These should be placed to the left above the fold, as this is where a user’s gaze naturally lands.

Use Filters

By adding filters for business dashboard visualizations, users can simplify how they display data. This allows users to quickly isolate relevant insights and avoid pulling unnecessary data that can bog down performance. Filters are an important aspect of self-service data discovery that allow users to interact with datasets in visually. Filters enable users to slice and dice data to find new patterns within the business.    

Ensure Accuracy

Without accurate data, a business dashboard will be useless. In fact, it can be detrimental to the business, because misguided decisions will be made. Therefore, accurate data is critical to the success of a business dashboard. Data should be checked for accuracy at each step of the implementation phase, starting with the initial design phase. First, check each data source to ensure the data is accurate before uploading it to the business dashboard. It also needs to be checked once the data is cleaned or transformed and is a best practice for any extract, transform, load process (ETL). When the dashboard is complete, the data should be checked by each stakeholder and periodically examined for accuracy throughout its lifecycle.

Allow Users to Drill Down

The best dashboards present users with a high-level view of the data and allow them to select data segments to drill down for further detail. For example, a sales analytics dashboard might show deals by region, and a user could drill down to see which products sold best in each region and which salespeople performed the best. It’s also important to only include the most relevant data for each view so the dashboard isn’t cluttered. This top-down approach is intuitive and should be incorporated for advanced functionality.

Choose the Best Visualizations

Always make sure to use the best data visualizations for each KPI. Common types include:

  • Line graphs
  • Bar charts
  • Pie charts
  • Tree maps
  • Histograms
  • Box plots
  • Heatmaps

For example, line graphs are best when the user wants to see time series analysis, and bar graphs are useful when the user wants to compare different groups of datasets against similar metrics. Always be mindful of which visualization is best to present each KPI. User acceptance testing will confirm what users prefer in each scenario.

Minimize Colorization

Businesses should recognize that dashboards using too much color can negatively affect readability. In the case of business dashboards, complex visualizations can involve more colors, but overall use of colors should be minimized as much as possible. A good rule of thumb is to use different hues of the same color for most of the dashboard, along with a one or two others to emphasize key points. This keeps the experience less jarring for users.    

Case Studies: Business Dashboard Success

Financial Dashboard

Financial dashboards give users an overview of where a business stands financially. The above example shows a view of revenue across time and business units. The user can also switch to views specific to cost, cost of sales, operating expenses, and net profit/loss. They can also drill into each business unit and see financial performance for each.

Social Media Dashboard

Social media managers use business dashboards to monitor performance and engagement of each social channel, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. A dashboard consolidates data from each of these channels and provides valuable insight into how messaging is perceived and by whom. This information helps inform future social posts and what people respond to most positively.

Retail Sales Dashboard

A retail sales dashboard displays an overview of sales by store, region, and product SKU over time. These are useful for retailers with multiple locations and many products. Executives can quickly see which regions are doing the best and which locations may need special attention. These dashboards can also show how pilot concepts perform to help push innovation.

Weather Dashboard

Companies are using more sophisticated methods to predict demand. Weather data can be very helpful to predict how many people are likely to need winter coats in a region based on historic temperatures. Restaurants and entertainment companies such as theme parks also use this data to predict how many visitors they will get in a season. Some weather metrics collected include temperature, average rainfall, and frequency of natural disasters.

What’s the Best Business Dashboard Software Solution?

There are many dashboard options for companies to choose from, but the best software will depend on their specific needs.

Individual Use

If the dashboard will only be used by a few people, a free business dashboard solution will likely be best. Excel and Google offer free solutions that provide basic dashboarding which can be shared on an individual basis. Excel allows users to easily move data into a spreadsheet, and more technical users can set up connections to external sources. Google Data Studio allows users to create free marketing dashboards from Google Ads and other common data sources.

MicroStrategy offers a robust data analytics solution for individuals: MicroStrategy Desktop. Individuals can connect data to the tool and create dashboards on the fly. It also includes advanced analytics functionality like predictive modeling and regression analysis.

Small Business

Small businesses can opt for either a free or more advanced solution depending on their needs. Savvy businesses who are focused on analytics might deploy a cloud-based dashboarding solution to provide sharing of a single source of truth. This is especially important if teams are in several locations. For example, a small e-commerce operation may have an operations team in the United States but outsourced development and production. In this situation, a cloud-based solution will improve the analytics business process and keep everyone informed.

Enterprise

Large enterprises really need a modern business intelligence platform to integrate with their IT systems to improve all business functions. Data governance and security become necessities when an organization needs to deploy dashboarding capability. An enterprise solution will also provide advanced analytics, enterprise mobility, and customization. MicroStrategy Cloud offers a solution that can be deployed on Azure or AWS.