What? Where? How? When? Key Questions to Ask When Implementing Dashboards

Posted on February 9th 2012

by Tim Nicholson, Director of Informer Services

Dashboards.  When you mention this term to people, they tend to think of speedometers, thermometers, or some other –ometer that is displaying the health or progress of an organization.  It sounds simple.  But putting a dashboard together isn’t a matter of displaying random charts or pulling data from just anywhere.  It takes some thought.

Informer’s powerful web-based query engine and user-friendly interface provides flexible ad hoc reporting and analysis based on real-time data from multiple data sources. Now with Dashboards, Informer can quickly turn real-time information into departmental visualizations that monitor critical performance indicators.

One of our earliest adopters of Informer Dashboards was Wake Technical Community College.  When we installed dashboards, I thought we would be able to use any of the 3,000+ reports in their Informer repository.  We spent a lot of time poking around their reports trying to find one that could be used in a dashboard.  I say we ‘spent’, but it was closer to ‘wasted’.  It quickly became apparent we were looking at dashboards from the wrong angle.  Most of their reports were based on transactional information, and therefore did not lend themselves well to being used on a dashboard.  We ditched the approach of looking for the data to display and instead started at the other end.  This led to 4 questions:

  1. What did we want to display on the dashboard?  This started the discussion of KPI’s, or key performance indicators.  What are the important business indicators that we wanted to track in the dashboard?  That quickly led to a number of ideas for dashboard components: total enrollment this year compared to last year; enrollment by gender and ethnicity; graduation rates by gender and ethnicity; budgets by expenditure and departmental area.  Ultimately, we determined that these would have to come from the decision makers themselves, and not from us, in a real implementation.  But for the purposes of our alpha test, these were a good start.
  2. Where do we get the data for these dashboard components?  Is it coming from an existing report?  A raw SQL query?  We decided to develop the reports that would be used for our dashboard to prevent wasting any more time searching through their report repository.
  3. How will the data be visualized?  Informer provides several different types of chart types, such as pie, line, bar, column, etc.  We had to determine which chart type best fit what we were trying to visualize.  For basic counts, like enrollment, a simple gauge, column or bar chart was sufficient.  But for data with multiple series (enrollment by academic program for example), a bar or column chart made more sense.  Trends are typically best viewed as a line chart, so for our trend charts, we used line.  Pie charts are best used for looking at percentage of total data.
  4. When will the data be refreshed?  Informer caches the data used on dashboards.  The developers are adding the ability to set the refresh rate for each data provider (a report, query, etc.), allowing the data to be automatically refreshed on a scheduled basis (every n minutes, daily, weekly, etc.).  Users can also manually refresh the data if the dashboard developer gives them the right.  How often data is refreshed is really determined by the nature of the data.  Is it something that changes rapidly, or does it only change occasionally, if ever?

Our next step at Wake Tech is to do a demonstration to their senior administrators to hopefully gather additional KPI’s that we want to show.  We will also be showcasing these dashboards at ICON, so be sure to come!

Register at http://delivery.entrinsik.com/icon/2012/.

For a demonstration of Informer, email sales@entrinsik.com or call 888-703-0016.

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