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 in Microsoft Excel. If you do a simple web search on Excel Dashboards, you’ll get lots of results, and unfortunately many of them aren’t very good, many don’t understand what makes a good dashboard, and too many have inflexible templates that are too hard to use. The resources below ought to get you started.
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.
Excel MVP Chandoo has written a series of posts about dashboarding techniques for Excel. He has a comprehensive list of these posts at Excel Dashboards.
Former MVP and author Mike Alexander has written about Excel pivot tables, integrating Excel and Access, and dashboards. Mike’s book Excel 2007 Dashboards and Reports for Dummies is the best Dummies book I’ve ever read, and Excel Dashboards and Reports covers dashboards in even greater detail.
Jorge Camoes has discussed dashboards in his blog “Charts”, which is now inactive but the articles remain. His Excel posts include How to create a dashboard in Excel, and you can read the rest in his archive of dashboard-related posts.
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. Check out the online resources. Then build and tear down and build again, until you have a display system that is informative and leads to framing good business decisions.