Keeping Your Eyes on the Road

By Michael DeNitto, MarketSight

Are you still laboring over fifty-page slide decks for your boss or your clients, without even asking them – or yourself – if that's what they really want? Chances are you're spending a lot of time on something that's not delivering the kind of value you imagine. What you’re actually doing is giving them more work by making them look through countless pages to find the handful of critical data points that will enable them to make an important decision.

After all, we are in the business of supporting decisions. Where should we invest our marketing budget? Why don’t customers buy our products and services? Why do our customers love us? Why is our competitor so much more appealing to younger buyers? What are the top five concerns of my most profitable customers? The list is endless. Managers and executives are all focused on attracting, serving, and retaining customers – and doing that better and better every quarter. They don't have the time, or the ability in many cases, to sift through large volumes of information to try to understand how best to proceed with a particular decision or course of action.

As a researcher, how can you help? In a word: Focus. Focus the person who's consuming your research on only the most important information. How can you do that? With dashboards. Information professionals co-opted the term "dashboard" from the automobile years ago because, well, it's a perfect word to describe what a dashboard is in the information space. It focuses your attention, using a visual or graphical display, on only the most essential pieces of information that you need to operate the vehicle. Just like running a business, driving the car is the full-time job. You can't stop what you're doing and take your eyes off the road for more than a second or two to check your speed, fuel level, navigation, climate control, communications, and entertainment system. As a driver, you need to be able to see, at a glance, exactly what’s happening with every relevant system in the car.

Just like in the car, where distractions abound, there's a rapidly increasing number of data sources that a business person must take into account when operating a business. In addition to all the operational data around sales, product and service delivery, and financial performance, there's social media data from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest and many other emerging platforms. There are online communities. There are focus groups – both in-person and video-based. There's virtual reality. There's facial analysis, eye tracking, and neuro marketing. There’s audio, video, and geo-location data. There's sensor data from watches and beacons. And of course, there is still lots and lots of survey data. Dashboards that highlight the most important findings from across this vast universe of data help decision makers to focus on only the critical metrics required to understand a particular business challenge.

Let's talk about the nuts and bolts of what a dashboard really is. It's a collection of numbers and pictures on a single screen that visually convey key business metrics. These metrics, likely from multiple data sources, are easy to understand and interpret very quickly and provide all the essential information about a particular business situation. Ideally, the dashboard provides a level of interactivity that enables the user to control what is displayed and how it is displayed. It is also available on a secure online platform via any device. In other words, a dashboard is an interactive, visual display of key business metrics, available online and accessible by any authorized device.

You've probably seen examples of dashboards online. Some are pretty impressive and some are pretty confusing and cluttered. You may even be using dashboards already. There is certainly a wide variety of approaches out there. As a provider of a data analysis, visualization, and dashboard solution for researchers, we’ve seen a lot of different dashboards and a variety of different processes for creating them. I'd like to share some of what we’ve learned.

First, let's talk about process. The first step in creating a dashboard is to identify the audience for that dashboard. The next step is to find out what they need. It's critical to meet with the people who will be using this dashboard to understand as much as you can about why they want a dashboard in the first place. For example, what are their roles in their organization? What are their objectives? What specific metrics do they need to see and what decisions do they plan to make and what actions do they plan to take based on those metrics?

Once you've identified the audience, their objectives, the metrics they need to see, and the decisions and actions they will take based on this data, the next step is to figure out how they want all this information displayed. Are they looking for charts? Tables? Infographics? KPIs? Is there a natural grouping of certain metrics? Should the various numbers be shown over time or as a single data point?

It's also important to determine if they’ll need to interact with or manipulate the data in any way. If so, what types of controls will they need? Will they be defining date ranges, selecting geographical regions,  setting filters, selecting different demographics? Often, it's not enough to have only a static view of the data. Most users tend to want to control what they're seeing and how it's displayed.

Related to display, you should also consider what type of device the dashboard will be viewed on. Will the users be at their desks on their laptops? In a conference room? On their cell phones? Tablets? On a large screen TV? Depending upon the size of the screen, you'll be able to include more or less information and decisions about layout will be important.

Once you've gathered as much information as possible from your audience, the next step is to start putting some ideas on paper to get some initial feedback. This can be done literally with pencil and paper, on a whiteboard, using graphic design tools, or using your dashboard software. The idea is to rapidly generate a few concepts for review by the team before you start building the actual dashboards and connecting them to live data.

When you've reached a general consensus as to the information that will be contained in the dashboard and how it will be displayed and manipulated, then you can get to work creating the actual dashboard.

At this stage, how your process goes will depend on the software you’ll be using to create the dashboard, the talent and skills you have on your team, and the level of graphical design required to make the dashboard compelling.

As you can see from the process above, by which you learn about the intended audience’s requirements, the more flexible and fully featured your dashboard creation software is, the more likely you’ll be able to meet their needs. Likewise, if you intend to design the dashboard yourself, then you should be sure to select a tool that is easy to learn and use, and is able to connect to different data sources easily. Features to look for in dashboard software include the following:

  • Intuitive features that are easy to learn and use.
  • Flexible page layout that allows you to drag and drop items on a canvas, position them and resize them to fit your layout.
  • The ability to annotate and label the different elements of your dashboard to make it easy for the user to follow.
  • The ability to include images that can be used as infographics, backgrounds, custom shapes, logos, and any other purpose you can imagine to enhance the look of your dashboard.
  • Interactive controls that can be applied to individual charts and the entire dashboard, providing essential tools for users to control the information they see and how it’s presented.

In addition, you should select an integrated platform that includes charting and crosstabulation tools that run statistical significance tests – a must for market researchers – and additional features, such as, data cleaning and variable creation and editing that will provide important flexibility when refining your dashboards.

Finally, it's essential to choose a cloud-based application that enables collaboration and also provides the hosting platform for sharing your dashboards with clients and colleagues. In all cases, when designing your dashboard, keep it simple. Remember, the point is for the user to be able to understand very quickly exactly what the data is showing. The more complicated and ornate you make the dashboard, the harder it is for users to follow it. Take each data point or chart separately and consider the clearest way to convey its meaning. Look at each chart in the dashboard and ask yourself: "Is there anything I can take out of this chart that isn’t actually adding any value? Is there anything missing that is required for a user to understand this?" Include only essentials.

As a rule of thumb, a dashboard should include about five to ten items on it. By item, I mean a KPI or a chart or table. The layout and size of each item will be dictated by the device used to view it. For example, if you know your users will most likely view the dashboard on their phones, then you’ll include fewer items and arrange them in a vertical layout so users don’t have to scroll from left to right to view the dashboard. If you know the dashboard will be appearing on a large screen in the lobby, then use that space to include more information or make it easily viewed from a distance.

With so much information available to businesses today, dashboards can provide a much-needed lens for focusing on the most important metrics on a regular basis, enabling your users to keep their eyes on the road. Following a disciplined process up front and using the right tools to design, build, and share your dashboards will play a significant role in your success. Good luck!


Michael DeNitto, CEO MarketSight
Michael DeNitto, MarketSight
Michael DeNitto is CEO of MarketSight, he founded the company in October of 2006 in partnership with the Monitor Group.


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