Dashboard as an Organizing System

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A thoughtfully designed dashboard is an exceptional tool for keeping pulse on business performance, but a poorly designed conglomerate of charts and tables can be a distraction. The article “3 reasons to hate BI dashboards” by Joe McKendrick posted on the business technology news website ZDNet criticizes the current state of corporate dashboards for being poorly organized, not actionable, and not much more useful than they were 20 years ago even with technological advances. Unfortunately, in my experience I have come across many dashboards of this kind. I view a dashboard as an organizing system and applying the basic concepts of information organization can dramatically improve business dashboards.

A well-designed dashboard can be viewed as “an intentionally arranged collection of resources and the interactions they support” (Glushko, 2012). We can consider distinct metrics displayed on a dashboard as resources, and the groups of relevant metrics carefully selected to describe a business entity or a process as a collection of these resources. The metrics should be selected based on their intrinsic meaning, relationships between them, and their categorizations such as data type (categorical vs. continuous) or dataset type (cross-sectional vs. time-series). Then, as a thoughtful developer, you can’t just throw these measures on a webpage in the form of various graphs and call it a dashboard. These metrics should be “intentionally arranged” into informative graphics, which could be further arranged into logical sections to address specific business questions, and then strategically positioned on a page with the purpose of briefly and effectively communicating a message and encouraging action. Moreover, the developers should picture how the users will be interacting with the dashboard and extracting information from it. And just like in any other organizing system, modern technology enables a greater range of interactions with data visualizations allowing interactive and dynamic visualizations.

Now comes the big question: how much organization is needed for a dashboard? Embedded in this choice is the consideration of a trade-off between the time it takes to organize a dashboard and the time it will take the user to retrieve insight from it. Typically, the business users don’t have much time to decipher poorly designed graphics that are presented in no particular order. They expect to retrieve the message about their business at a glance. In my perspective, this is a great opportunity for dashboard developers to add value – the more thought they put into organizing the metrics, charts, sections, legends, annotations, etc., the more effectively the message that the dashboard is meant to deliver will be retrieved. Since data visualizations are intended for interaction with the user, it is important to design them with user in mind.

I agree that the state of today’s business dashboards is generally poor and there is a lot of room for improvement. A clever dashboard developer can turn a dashboard into an irreplaceable business tool by applying a thoughtful and systematic approach that incorporates the basic concepts of organizing systems.