In a world of increasing complexity and the growth of AI and related systems for harvesting and interpreting data, it can be hard to meaningfully present all the information that businesses have to hand. Operational dashboards are key tools that have become indispensable as a way of dealing with data complexity. They provide actionable insight, making it clear where improvements can be made.
In this article, we’ll look at what operational dashboards are, what functions they fulfil and what constitutes good practice in dashboard design.
What is a Dashboard?
Taking their name from the panel in automobiles that displays various information about how the engine is running, dashboards are a graphic realization of key metrics relating to a particular business is performing.
They can be as visually basic as an Excel spreadsheet or as complex and interactive as you like, with many platforms offering customizability as a key function of their dashboards.
Operational, Analytic and Strategic Dashboards
Dashboards can be broadly divided into three kinds – operational, analytic, and strategic. We will be focusing on the former variety here, but it is worth distinguishing operational dashboards from related infomatic tools.
Here’s a summary of the three main types of dashboard:
These dashboards focus on current performance, plotting this against KPIs to give a clear picture of the organization at a point in time. They tend to be used across all levels of the company and provide a useful way for ensuring that everyone’s on the same page (literally and metaphorically).
In contrast, analytical dashboards look at an entity’s performance across time, related to agreed objectives. For example, an investment fund might use such a dashboard to convey the changing value of various stocks over time. These dashboards can be complex and are shared with select teams or individuals.
At the highest levels of an organization, a strategic dashboard can be used to map out the future direction of travel, measured against concrete goals. These dashboards are good for project management and innovation tracking. Access to this high-level information might only be made available to senior management.
These different types of dashboards reflect the differences between Business Analytics (BA) and Business Intelligence. The former takes a data-driven and detailed approach to looking into past trends and projecting them forwards. BI, by contrast, gets granular with relation to how a company is doing at this present moment.
What Makes a Good Operational Dashboard?
There are several factors that contribute to a well-designed operational dashboard:
- Clarity– The information should be presented in a way that is immediately clear, since these dashboards are accessed regularly by staff across all levels.
- Security– Only the information which can securely be shared across the company should be presented, given the OD’s widespread use. Often, multiple factor authentication is used to protect these dashboards from illicit access.
- Specificity – There is no point in providing a host of irrelevant data since this will reduce immediacy and effectiveness and waste time. It is important to focus on what’s relevant and not swamp the dashboard with unnecessary detail.
- Impact – Graphic displays, bold colors and readable fonts all help to make the dashboard more impactful and readily understood.
- Interactivity – Tools such as filters and tabs can be used to display different data sets or metrics. This allows different users to home in on what data is of most relevance to them.
- Customizability – Some operational dashboards can be optimized for specific departments or subdivisions. It is important that this feature is not misused, with permissions restricted so that multiple versions don’t proliferate.
Going Beyond Excel
Businesses used to rely on spreadsheets for data presentation and analysis. Programs like Excel are sophisticated in terms of the automated numerical data manipulation they can perform.
However, spreadsheets are not particularly easy on the eye, they can easily contain errors which are hard to identify, and they are rarely secure. In addition, it is possible for multiple versions of a spreadsheet to exist, containing conflicting data.
For instance, if Analyst 1 updates Spreadsheet A and then saves it under a different name, then Analyst 2 doesn’t necessarily know that A has been replaced. She may continue to work on the outdated version, without realizing her colleague is working from a different document entirely.
Although there are some basic measures in place in Excel to alert users to such conflicts, mistakes and confusion still occur. Using a secure, one-size-fits-all dashboard that restricts data entry only to specified and security cleared staff has multiple benefits:
- Data is protected from loss or error.
- Access can be more securely restricted.
- Data can be presented more visually.
- Printed reports do not proliferate, promoting security.
- Greater complexity can be achieved, without sacrificing clarity.
- Dashboards can be integrated with a host of other tools.
- · Realtime and constant updating can be implemented.
- Dashboards can be customized for appearance and data displayed.
- They are optimized for both desktop and mobile access.
How to Design an Operational Dashboard
The process for creating an operational dashboard is simple – there are really only four stages. However, it is not a “once and done” process, but rather an iterative one. Like the development of any piece of software, you’ll use a system of versioning and regular updates to ensure the dashboard continues to be fit for purpose.
To work towards an effective design, simply answer the questions in this short checklist.
- Identify the Task. What is the purpose of the OD? What KPIs do you need to display? Do you have access to the appropriate data sources?
- Specify the End User. Who will be accessing the OD? What security clearance do they have? How IT literate are they? How will they be interacting with the OD?
- Match Design to User. Once you have drafted the OD, assemble a representative sample of end users, and run a beta test. Get everyone together and ask questions including – how easy was the OD to use? Did it provide everything you need? Was it confusing? Is it fit for purpose?
- Incorporate Feedback and Revisit. Bearing feedback in mind, make any necessary tweaks and when ready, launch it within the organization. Remember to revisit the process by running down this checklist on a regular basis.
Remember that as an organization changes with time, what worked yesterday may not work today. Fortunately, most dashboard-building apps permit a high degree of customizability and it is relatively straightforward to institute any changes you need.
KPIs, Metrics and Dashboards
A major part of the process of building a useful operational dashboard is knowing which KPIs are vital, useful, or merely interesting. You want to prioritize the former and sprinkle in the latter two categories sparingly.
Here are some key onboarding metrics to consider:
- Customer Engagement – a range of metrics from page visits and clicks to subscription and newsletter signups, social media performance, exit rates etc. All are designed to show you how well your public-facing portals are faring.
- Customer Support Efficiency – customer service is vital with poor service often listed as the number one reason why customers stay away. US companies lose more than $62 billion annually due to poor customer service. Keep a handle on this by measuring the number of support tickets received, resolution rates, response times and other metrics to assess how well you are performing.
- TTV– Time to Value– the time taken for the customer’s satisfaction to be attained. This can be measured by how fully they are using the product and how long they take to travel through the pipeline to full utilization. It can be a slippery thing to measure but it helps you understand whether the product you are offering really is providing what the customer needs.
- Milestones Completed – these are a huge boost to staff morale. Rather than only displaying the number of purchases, for instance, you can choose to use a visual indicator of when a target has been hit. This helps build motivation and reward effort, as well as proving a handy visual indicator of success when reporting to senior management or founders.
These are just an indication of what you might choose to monitor. Much will depend on the nature of your business. It is reasonable to expect SaaS to require different KPIs to a physical product sold in a bricks and mortar operation or in-person service, for instance.
Designing your Dashboard
When creating an Operational Dashboard, it is important to think visually. Bar-charts, graphs, pie charts and other interpretive tools are better than basic numerical values. Most dashboard builders come with a plethora of options to create engaging and lively data visualizations.
Don’t overload your dashboard with irrelevant data and make sure it is well laid out and legible. Remember that if you use color-coding this may not work for staff with visual impairments. Position the most important KPIs in pole-position on the dashboard.
There are two variables in any useful metric:
- One numeric variable to quantify the information you are presenting.
- One text-based category, which appeals to the viewer’s analytic side.
Examples might include:
- total sales (numeric) per month (text)
- profit margin (numeric) by location (text)
For more on this topic, see this useful blog article.
Want to Find Out More?
DashboardFox can help you create an Operational Dashboard that’s perfectly tailored to your organization's needs. We’ve been creating business intelligence tools for over 20 years.
What’s more, we’re not just another subscription service. We work on a perpetual subscription model based on a set number of concurrent logins – once we’ve built your dashboard, you’ll have access forever at no additional cost.
If you’d like to know more, check out our services here, or get in touch.
Learn more about financial metrics and metrics of all types in our KPI Directory and if you’re not looking for a self-hosted dashboard software like DashboardFox, check out our cloud dashboard solution, InsightWorthy.