Dashboards—You Can’t Just Drop Them on Your Users

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Many products today—including full business intelligence platforms, stand-alone dashboard programs, visualization tools, and analytics tools—tout self-service dashboards.  For some vendors, that means that the dashboard is built and ready to go and you can go ahead and start drilling down and applying filters.  To some vendors that means you can “open the box” and build you own.  But the reality is, with nearly every dashboard implementation, a little bit of knowledge and a little bit of training is going to go a long way toward helping users get the most out of their dashboards and avoid both frustration and misunderstanding.

Data–What Users Need to Know

Dashboards can provide deep insight by letting you actually see a trend or pinpoint an outlier at a glance.  There can be eye-catching graphics, excerpts from number-packed tables, top ten lists, traffic lights, and more.  In fact, the tool itself can be really fun.  But keep in mind, your users are looking for data-backed insights.  Dashboards are all about the data.  Your users must understand where the data in the dashboard comes from, what’s in it, and what it represents.  If you are looking at a dashboard and you see the label “revenue,” is that monthly revenue from your ERP?  Is it gross revenue or net revenue?  Or is it pipeline revenue from your CRM system?  Or could it be commissionable revenue from your commissions system?  Or is it the total of your transactional feed from your billing run?  When you are looking at consolidated expenses from two companies, is it before or after intercompany eliminations?

You’ll also need to know a bit about your chart of accounts and what gets coded where in order to make sense of the information contained in your dashboards.  Subscriptions is one account that always seems to cause some confusion—do you put magazine subscriptions here or do they go into educational material?  Is this where you put subscriptions to services like Dun & Bradstreet credit services?  Or perhaps your company codes annual subscriptions to organizations like the GP Users Group in this account. Plus, you’ll need to understand the hierarchies—is Illinois in the Eastern Region?  Which products are in each line of business?

You’ll need to understand a bit about the calculations in your dashboards and what they represent.  What are your KPIs and why are they important?  What does a negative variance mean?  What does a negative percent change mean—can it be a good thing?  There is no getting around it–in order to understand what your dashboard is trying to tell you, you need to understand what’s in the data.  You can expect the user to dig in to the dashboard and figure it out on his own, but that will waste a whole lot of time.  Better to know some of this information before even sitting down to the computer.

Your Organization—What Users Need to Know

Many dashboards are role-specific so the information shown in the financial analyst’s dashboard will not be the same as the information in the operations manager’s dashboard.  Just knowing this will help improve communications about dashboard contents.  In addition, processes may be incorporated into the dashboard.  For instance, if you are looking at available hours on a project dashboard, you should know if there is a rule that says not to include any hours for a resource who will be on vacation during the “go live” period.  A distribution company may have a rule that prohibits inventory from being reduced to zero, so the inventory stock may not be the same as the available quantity.  A user should know if expired products have been removed from the inventory shown on the dashboard or if a sale to a customer with shaky credit is included in sales while the credit approval is pending.

Security is another area where a little upfront knowledge can be helpful.  Suppose a user is consulting with a colleague and together they look at a dashboard in the colleague’s office.  The user says, “Hey, can you save that view for me?”  But when she gets back to her office and opens the dashboard, it doesn’t look at all the same because the two colleagues have different access rights.  Not only might that be a little frustrating, it could cause some ill will.

Another area of contention is the “definitions” of the terminology used in your dashboards.  Here’s a common example: customer.  When does a prospect become a customer?  When the buyer says, “yes”? When the contract is signed?  When the payment is received?  And when does a customer cease being a customer?  When the maintenance term expires?  When the customer stops using the product?  After 12 months of no revenue?  How does your company measure customer engagement in its Top Ten Customers list—revenue? number of sales? some kind of point system? Understanding the basics of company terminology and processes will reduce the effort it takes to reconcile variances and trends and make the data truly meaningful and useful for decision making.

Dashboards Tool—What Users Need to Know

Most software vendors boast that users can sit down and the computer and in minutes, with no training, users will be analyzing data in their dashboards.  And it’s true.  In most cases, they will be able do some rudimentary manipulation or drill-down into aggregated numbers.  But to really get the most value from your dashboards, users need to be familiar with all of the functionality they are likely to use on a recurring basis within the first few weeks.  Notice I didn’t say they should be familiar with all of the functionality.  Sometimes the “firehose” treatment backfires—instead of getting the user excited about everything he can do, it stymies him into inaction.

Users should know what functionality is available and should be able to manipulate the data in their dashboards by adding or removing filters, changing variables, changing the data from tabular form to graphic form and back, removing outliers and totals from graphs, and using any other dashboard functionality they are likely to need right away.

Another thing you’ll want to be sure your users understand is exactly what visualizations are available within the dashboard tool, when they should be used, and how to read them.  Sounds elementary, no?  We don’t need to teach people to read bar graphs—they learned that in grammar school.  But do your users understand the nuances of a heat map or a bubble graph or a radar chart?  Do they know all of the information available in a bullet graph or a spark line?  What are those gauges and dials really telling you?

Dashboards—Is Training Really Necessary?

Yes, training is a must, even with the most intuitive dashboard tool. But as you can see from the above discussion, much of the training is not about how to use the tool, but how to understand the data within the dashboard visualizations.  Much of the training does not need to be in front of the computer because much of the training is about the data itself, about company processes and terminology, and about advanced visualizations and how to read them.

BIO Business Intelligence provides intuitive dashboards for even your most non-technical users and your BIO consultant will present full product training. Further, through the course of implementation, your BIO consultant will call upon years of implementation experience to guide you in the consistent usage of processes, terminology, calculations, and other content.

Join BIO for a free webinar to see how BIO dashboards can provide business insights at a glance.  Please contact me at 203.705.4648 or by email at sandi@bio4analytics.com if you have any questions about BIO, dashboards, or business intelligence.

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By Sandi Richards Forman of BIO Analytics, Corp., Microsoft Dynamics Business Intelligence (BI) Solution Provider