One of the most misunderstood terms in business today is “dashboard”. When many people hear the phrase “dashboard report”, they think of the dashboard of their car, or even the cockpit of an advanced fighter jet, with fuel gauges, speedometers, and other displays crammed into a tight space. These displays are effective in your car, because they tell you what’s going on right now. They’re effective in a jet, because the pilot has undergone many hours of training in order to interpret these gauges appropriately. These flashy but cluttered displays are horrible in a business report, because they are inefficient at presenting information, they don’t show trends, they distract the viewer with colors and glitter, while presenting very little useful information.
A dashboard report is not a set of dial gauges that mimics the cockpit of a 747. A dashboard report is the combination of a large number of small, well-designed charts and tables, thoughtfully integrated to pack a great deal of information into a small area on screen or on a printed page. In this post I describe some free and commercial resources for creating dashboard reports, particularly within Microsoft Excel.
Stephen Few of Perceptual Edge has spent a career learning and teaching what techniques effectively display data so that human eyes can readily perceive it as information and human minds readily analyze it as knowledge. Stephen has written two books entitled Show Me the Numbers and Information Dashboard Design, which explain how to present information in ways which are known to be effective, based on the psychology of cognition and the physiology of vision. These books are very good references for understanding perception and cognition in terms of informational display.
Businessman and Excel MVP Charley Kyd of ExcelUser explains the benefits of dashboard reporting, and shows how to construct robust dashboard reports with clearly written procedures. Charley has incorporated Few’s approaches with his own background in Excel financial analysis to produce a comprehensive guide to using Excel to produce efficient dashboard reports. Charley’s commercial materials include an e-book, Dashboard Reporting with Excel, and a number of example workbooks that show the concepts and techniques behind effective Excel dashboard reports. In addition to construction of dashboards, Charley shows how to design a system of workbooks and directories so that regular updates of a dashboard is painless, taking minutes instead of days.
In his intelligent and informative blog Charts, Jorge Camoes discussed dashboards. Jorge takes a pragmatic approach, and offers instructions on dashboarding in Excel as well as reviews of other charting products. His Excel posts include How to create a dashboard in Excel, Excel Dashboards: do you need VBA?, and 10 tips to improve your Excel dashboard. Jorge has reviewed the use of Crystal Xcelsius as a dashboarding environment, and found it lacking (which matches my own experience), and he has provided a link to a dashboard best practices paper by Dundas, maker of fancy charting software. Visit Jorge’s archive of dashboard-related posts.
Excel MVP and author Mike Alexander of DataPig Technologies has written about Excel pivot tables, integrating Excel and Access, and about dashboards. Mike has written about Crystal Xcelsius, and his new book, Excel 2007 Dashboards and Reports for Dummies is being released this month.
The Dundas white paper Dashboard Best Practices is [no longer] available both online in html format and as a pdf document. In Jorge Camoes’ post Dashboard design: we need best practices for best practices, Jorge finds that the content of the white paper accurately reflects the philosophies of the experts cited above; unfortunately he also finds that the Dundas charting package and documentation seems to promote conflicting practices, with special graphical effects obscuring the accurate dispay of information.
Sandy Cavalaris, who writes the Excel with Monarch blog, describes how to use Excel in conjunction with the to create a dashboard reporting system (part one and part two). I know very little about Monarch, but it seems like a worthwhile approach to try before dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars in a monolithic ERP system.
I have the following advice to anyone who is developing dashboard reports. You already have Microsoft Excel, so you should try to use it as a dashboard application before investing in expensive and obscure software. Excel can link to local data and to corporate databases, so it can wield the power of large packages with less overhead. Start with Stephen Few’s book on Information Dashboard Design to gain insights into what makes effective data displays. Read Charley Kyd’s web site and e-book to get practical approaches to dashboarding in Excel. Read Jorge Camoes’ archive of dashboard-related posts for more practical insights into Excel dashboarding. Then build and tear down and build again, until you have a display system that is informative and leads to framing good business decisions.