When Data Dashboards Don't Work: Common Complaints and Their Cures

Business.com / Technology Solutions / Last Modified: October 9, 2017
Photo credit: a-image/Shutterstock

Learn when to use and when not to use data dashboards in business, and why you should use a product that talks the language of business.

Having spent many years analyzing data and working with and for businesspeople who use data every day, I have seen a lot of dissatisfaction with data dashboards. I believe a lot of it comes from a lack of understanding of what dashboards should be used for. This post is about when to use business dashboards and how to pick a dashboard product that nontechnical people can use.

If you are reading this article, it means you are capable of using a gadget with a display and that you have also used, seen or at least heard of data dashboards. Dashboards are visual displays that show data in graphs, numbers and an occasional map. Despite most of them being visually attractive and showing a lot of good data, dashboards are often not understood or appreciated. Why?

Common complaints about data dashboards in business

  1. Dashboards are complicated. We depend on IT staff for setup and maintenance.

  2. I am overwhelmed with configuration choices and KPIs that I have to pick myself.

  3. I do not understand complicated metrics being displayed.

  4. Dashboards do not answer questions we ask.

  5. We did not get value out of dashboards and stopped using them.

Points 1, 2 and 3 are almost always results of a poor choice of dashboard vendor. Despite their visual simplicity, dashboards are not trivial to build. Under the hood, they are way more than just a few graphs and numbers. Engineers building them understand how to filter, normalize and aggregate data. Wait, did I just use technical mumbo-jumbo? This is exactly the reason we have complaints 1, 2 and 3.

Poor dashboard experience comes from the fact that dashboards are often built only by (or for) engineers who assume business stakeholders use command line to close apps on their Macs or who can calculate fractal ranges in their heads (I made "fractal ranges" up to sound technical).

How to find a dashboard built by domain experts and users

Instead of KPIs and math, dashboards should be talking about online engagement, revenue and customer retention – things that business users care about.

To address the first three points, you should do your homework and pick a dashboard tool that is built by and for business users. Here are a few benchmarks to apply: 

  1. It should only take a couple of minutes to set up your first display.

  2. The dashboard should connect to, collect and display data automatically.

  3. Dashboards should talk business language. If you see configurations that ask you to filter, aggregate or normalize data, think how well it will be received by your staff, and look for more options if the answer isn't good.

Once the dashboard is set up, users still turn them off after a while. It is complaints 4 and 5 that cause frustration. Here they are again: 

  1. Dashboards do not answer questions we ask.

  2. We did not get value out of dashboards and stopped using them.

Points 4 and 5 are not always dependent on the tool you select. They often depend on the perception or the expectation that the dashboard will do all the big-data heavy lifting, find all the insights and tell businesses what to do (make insights actionable and so on). It is a grave mistake for businesses to buy into the big data and analytics hype and see dashboards as the way to answer all data questions automatically, find insights and make smart decisions.

To help address complains above, here is what businesses should realize as soon as possible ...

Dashboards are data visualization tools

Data visualization serves two main purposes: data discovery and accessibility.

Data visualization is a relatively small part of the entire business intelligence ecosystem. The sooner business users realize that, the sooner they will start using dashboards correctly and for the right purpose.

I am not saying that dashboards are supposed to do little. Discovery and accessibility are big areas that are extremely important. If implemented correctly, they do make business much smarter. Dashboards give your great data the reach it deserves. Businesses can find new data and access it anytime – on desktops, on mobile devices, on the office wall. It is hugely important. 

This is why the ability to share data views via public links is an important feature, while the ability to connect to and configure an ODBC driver is not a must-have for business data visualization.

These are probably the biggest benefits of making data accessible and easy to explore: 

  • Realizing what data is available allows businesses to find new uses for it.

  • The ability for everybody to access the right data anytime, on any device, helps businesses make informed decisions.

  • Daily usage of data helps businesses spot trends.

  • Monitoring trends helps businesses find insights.

Traits you should look for in a dashboard

  • It should be easy to use. It should only take three minutes to set up a display. Clock it!

  • It should not talk about complex KPIs. If the screen talks to you as an engineer, it is not a good sign.

  • The dashboard vendor should take care of selecting right metrics for your area. If you are asked to go through a directory of thousands of metrics, close the app. Look for dashboards that offer business templates instead.

  • Check the number of configuration options. Changing the logo on the dashboard is okay; moving parts of the display manually, such as the position of the title, is not.

  • If the dashboard vendor's sales material is playing BI buzzword bingo (look it up) with you, it means it is claiming or trying to get the dashboard to do what it is not supposed to do and probably never will.

 

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