/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/mp1_293126.pngThere is a school of thought that is pretty dismissive of the value and importance of management dashboards.

In my mind the earliest versions of these that I recall as a teenager was when visiting a number of Central and Southern African mines and factories with my father and always being interested in the signage at the entrance to the facility that proudly displayed the number of days that had elapsed since the last accident.

Some would talk about factory or mine output or production and in the selling organizations, how they were doing in terms of units moved or some other number; individuals were named for big deals that they had closed or how the business was trending against the budgeting and planning targets.

Of course in the mining industry, accidents are sometimes completely beyond the control of the operators, rock falls, methane explosions and other mining mishaps can only be controlled and predicted and therefore avoided up to a point and so the idea that one should track safety days is, in some respects a little bit of a misrepresentation especially since it doesn’t track the close shaves or unreported incidents; so immediately you start to see the gaps that a dashboard or summary might present. Depending on how detail you’re oriented, the dashboard may be a prompt but you may still need to actually dive deep into the actual numbers and that is not necessarily represented or even accessible from the dashboard.

/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/mp2_293127.jpgThe need for site safety is obvious, without safety you have risk and liability and after a while people won’t want to venture anywhere near your business if they think that it will negatively impact them personally.

Reporting on successes and failures is a natural human behaviour, everyone loves a good story that outlines overcoming adversity, being triumphant or for that matter, leaving an audience in awe of some terrible outcome. Events like the sinking of the Titanic continue to fascinate simply because of the magnitude.

Outlining some specifics also seems to be something that we are also fascinated with and this translates easily into concepts like infographics. Reporting on statistics and making a spectacle out of them appeals to the inner geek in all of us even if we don’t feel that we have any ability to actually measurably make any difference. 

However, there is a line of thinking that says that management dashboards like the Site Safety and concepts like the Geckoboard make a real difference to the morale and the mindset of employees.

If you’re going to design a dashboard really come to an understanding of what is the purpose of the dashboard. Is it to really drive action or is it simply something that people look and get mildly or wildly excited about. How can you avoid dashboards being something akin to management porn?

A strong advocate of visual business intelligence is Stephen Few of Perceptual Edge, he has a quote that is often quoted by GeckoBoard as saying that: “Dashboards are not an appropriate venue for artistic impression”; essentially how I read this, is that the visual sparkle should not outweigh usability and practical usefulness. 

There are many ways of presenting different kinds of data as shown earlier in this post, from the very basic format to the elaborate Infographic.

/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/mp3_293128.pngWith live data you can use things like radar graphs, the 4 dimensional  Jasper perceptual bubble or the Gartner magic quadrant. 

It seems we are continually searching for new ways of to visually represent data in more self-explanatory ways.

Dashboard designers sometimes appear to have become so excited by the array of ways that they can present data that they have lost sight of the overarching objective of the dashboard itself. Microsoft Excel has 75 data visualization widgets but how many of them actually help to explain concepts and trends clearly and do you use?

The more dashboards one sees the more elaborate they seem to be, with some simply being downright confusing.  

As part of the design of the upcoming Winshuttle dashboards for Journal Entry processing I took a look at some of the key information that finance departments look at in determining what makes sense and at the same time remains visually appealing.

Rendering these in Excel was the first step and the subsequent steps involved working with development to flesh out some of the controls and visual elements.  This will be v1.0 but most importantly it will help to define how we handle some of the dash-boarding that SAP focused business operations and support groups need to understand  how automation is helping in areas like Finance Transformation in relation to transactional and master data volumes.

For some guidance on dashboard design Geckoboard recommends using 6 fundamental rules  but my 5 fundamentals are slightly different.  /wp-content/uploads/2013/10/mp4_293153.png

Rule 1 – Determine the audience

Work out who you are trying to talk toi and determine whether there is a broader swathe of viewers or observers that will find the dashboard of interest.

Rule 2 – Select appropriate data

There is a difference between high level KPIs and operational metrics, operational metrics may need to devolve to a different dashboard from a KPIs dashboard, besides which, if you go back to your audience, those that look at the KPIs may not be interested in carrying the cudgels to beat operational improvements out of operational groups – this may be a delegated task, which means that the operational dashboard needs to report the same data as the KPI dashboard.

Rule 3 – Group the data logically 

Use your limited space wisely. Even with an Infographic, long toilet roll run-outs with every conceivable metric can be frustrating to look at, ideally you want to be able to get all the key information you need in a single glance.  Don’t try to present everything, just present what matters and present it in an order that gels with the target audience. If you need to produce multiple dashboards then so be it. 

Rule 4 – Design for impact but avoid Clutter 

If the data is too dense then the visual impact of the message you are trying to convey is eroded. 

Rule 5 – Assume that what you design today will change in the future

Dashboards should not be considered as a static ‘finalised’ concept, by their very nature, dashboards have to evolve over time. What management focuses on today may be different over time, especially if trends are volatile.  Be prepared to have to rework your dashboards almost as soon as you get sign off on your first release.

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