To Build a Better Dashboard, Get to Know Your Audience

by   |   July 1, 2014 5:30 am   |   0 Comments

Anyone in the business intelligence (BI) space knows that it is evolving quickly. More data is being generated by more digital interactions, more machines, and more people all the time. Making all this data useful is a huge challenge.

And that is where BI developers come into the picture. These are the folks tasked with the difficult job of turning rows and columns into visually appealing dashboards. For them, the big challenge isn’t getting the data so much as it is presenting it in a way that is most appropriate for each constituency in the company.

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“If you put too much information in front of the wrong group, they lose interest,” said Gary Neff, BI developer for Olive Media, a digital ad sales company. “What do executives want to see? They don’t want to see the detail of all the numbers. They want to see a high-level graphical view of ‘Here’s how we’re doing.’ You don’t need as many graphs for an operations staff. You need to see the detailed lists of what makes up those graphs.”

During an interview at the Information Builder’s Summit 2014, where he delivered a presentation on best practices for designing digital dashboards, Neff said the goal is to give users just the information they need to do their jobs. So, for example, when he designs dashboards for executives, there is a heavy emphasis on graphics – about a 2:1 ratio of graphics to data, he said. For his operation folks, he reverses that ratio and gives them a lot more data and reporting.

Another big difference between the two groups is executive dashboards are more interactive. Executives can click on the different items on their dashboard to drill down into the report and see the underlying data upon which the chart is based.

To design the optimal dashboard for each group of users, Neff and his team sit down with the end users and talk about what they need. They also ask for mockups and examples whenever possible. This sounds pretty basic until you realize where visual analytics was just a few years ago. The movement toward the graphical representation of data only took off about five years ago. Since about 2009, BI developers have had an increasingly diverse and flexible tool kit with which to work.

“Best practices for us is to set achievable goals, take feedback and use it to better your product, ask for examples where possible, mockups, if you’ve seen something else you like, show us what it is so we have a starting point, so we can build a prototype,” he said.

In the old days, BI developers didn’t need to talk to anybody because there really weren’t any options to talk about. Reports were reports and you used what you got. Today, they can design based on feedback versus system limitations.

“It’s made life a lot easier to build to what they need as opposed to what you can give,” said Neff.

And this is a good thing because the entire C-suite seems to be abandoning their laptops and PCs for tablets en masse.

“Everyone seems to be moving away from the computer at that level and they’re moving onto a mobile platform,” said Neff. “So just being able to design something that works for them that allows easy access at any point anywhere … It’s about creating a more self-serve environment that allows you to see the data and has consistency.”

Olive Media also is using the Information Builder’s InfoAssist functionality to allow power users to build out their own ad-hoc reports so a BI developer doesn’t have to be involved. This saves everyone time, makes LOB managers more effective with analytics, and, it is hoped, leads to better decision making.

“We’re more than happy to pass off the easier requests,” Neff said.

Now a freelance writer, in a former, not-too-distant life, Allen Bernard was the managing editor of and numerous other technology websites. Since 2000, Allen has written, assigned and edited thousands of articles that focus on intersection of technology and business. As well as content marketing and PR, he now writes for Data, Ziff Davis B2B,, the Economist Intelligence Unit and other high-quality publications. Originally from the Boston area, Allen now calls Columbus, Ohio, home. He can be reached at 614-937-2316 or Please follow him on Twitter at @allen_bernard1, on Google+ or on Linked In.

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