Wait a minute, you may be saying to yourself. This blog keeps on telling me that there are a million and one types of dashboards, and now I’m about to read about just three? It’s true, dear reader: there are in fact innumerable variations on the dashboard theme depending on the data they contain, the design choices made, and the ultimate purpose of the dashboard. At the risk of sounding reductive, however, we believe they all fall into one of three categories. This begs the questions: What are these categories, and what are they used for? What are the best practices for each? That’s what we’ll share with you here!
Picture a “traditional” dashboard. Are you seeing metrics, updating in real-time, showing performance data related to the operations of the day? If so, you’re envisioning an operational dashboard, arguably the most common dashboard type. These are the dashboards well-suited to a wall display on a manufacturing plant floor, or a command suite of global operations.
The purpose of an operational dashboard is to provide, at a glance, a comprehensive snapshot of performance of the day. Much like the dashboard on a car, operational dashboards give the viewer information related to the immediate performance of the organization. They shouldn’t require drill downs to be useful, because often the viewer won’t have the option to manipulate the dashboard past the initial view.
This means that the operational dashboard has to have a fairly detailed view. In turn, it’s important to make sure, when planning an operational dashboard, that the scope does not become too wide. If you try to accomplish too much with one dashboard, it can become unclear and ultimately unused. Keeping the end user in mind will assist in this process. Are you communicating metrics to an assembly line, or an executive? Make sure to focus group your end users so you know exactly what they need to see to perform their job functions effectively.
If you are using data from the past to identify trends that can help you make decisions about the future, you are on your way to creating an analytical dashboard. These dashboards are tools that the user should be able to interact with, inquire of, and explore. As such, features like pivot tables and drilldowns are well-suited to analytical dashboards.
Comparing and contrasting data across multiple variables is a crucial aspect of data analytics. A user must be able to compare data across time, to see if performance differences correlate with corporate action (or if outside forces, such as seasonality, have measurable effects on metrics). Slicing and dicing the data in a structured way allows the user to determine what efforts have worked
An analytical dashboard can be a valuable tool in the right hands, but they require a level of understanding that they average business user may not possess. The data in an analytical dashboard is typically complex, as are the analytical exercises the dashboard is suited towards. As such, analytical dashboards are best left to your database analysts as opposed to the whole company. Defining user permissions is a simple way to ensure that your analytical dashboards are being served to the right group.
We spend a lot of time talking about KPIs, because the evidence is clear that setting goal and aiming towards them is the surest path to success. If you’ve defined key performance indicators and are tracking performance in relation to those KPIs, odds are you’ve got yourself a strategic dashboard. These dashboards are often used to align departmental performance with overall corporate strategy.
Typically, strategic dashboards have a retrospective flair. They look at benchmark performance data from, say, last quarter, and compare it to the current period. Have things improved, stayed the same, or worsened? They’re also often composed of data from multiple sources, as company-wide goals are affected by multiple systems and actions.
Strategic dashboards often share metrics that are important to the whole organization, so consider having them available to the whole organization. It’s obvious that management and the executive team would want a birds-eye-view of strategic KPIs, but when this sort of performance data is transparently shared with lower level employees, there can be unexpected benefits. You never know where the next great idea in your organization will come from, and when you empower the whole team with knowledge, that becomes especially true.
Get the Guide Fundamental Design Principles for Dashboards
Even if you’re not the artistic type, this guide will have you thinking like a graphic designer and making informed choices that support your data narrative.