Many companies have begun to realize that the business processes we employ today have an astonishing ability to generate mounds of data. This data can become an ever-expanding landscape of information, which is garnered and stored in disparate systems across several locations. The challenge many organizations face is the ability to consolidate that data, extract and deliver information to key decision-makers in a format that first, makes sense, and second, is useful.
In nature, animals depend on highly tuned instincts to survive. In the business world CEOs depend on business instincts developed over years of experience and training to help them succeed. CEOs are often challenged by the exorbitant amount of information accessible to them. It is their responsibility to react and make decisions based on the data. It is imperative that the data be presented to them and to all key decision-makers in an organization in a way that allows them to rely on their finely tuned business instincts to make quick, yet accurate decisions.
The premise behind data visualization is that looking directly at the numbers is not always the best way to understand the data. Data visualization is the process of converting raw numerical or tabular data into a graphical depiction of the data. One of the main goals of data visualization is to support decision making through the use of properly designed graphical representations of information. Well-designed data visualization systems can greatly assist users in the process of reasoning and decision making. For most people, data trends and exceptions to those trends are much easier to understand when they are presented visually.
When information is presented in a visual format, it allows users to more quickly perceive patterns or properties that may not have been anticipated or even discovered had the data been displayed differently - allowing users to draw valuable conclusions more intuitively, holistically and rapidly.
Seeing is Believing
The old axiom, "seeing is believing" has applicability from the highest to the lowest levels of any organization. It is important for any company to have a singular vision of the current state of things as well as the direction the business is headed in the marketplace.
Data visualization has recently experienced a rapid evolution from simple charts and graphs to powerful and visually appealing dashboards. These dashboards replace the drab, static tabular format that not only fails to communicate but can even hide important information in a forest of irrelevant detail.
Organizations that have properly implemented dashboards have found they can produce efficiency and instant understanding that translates into the ability to work faster and smarter. However, as with any software application, if dashboards are not properly designed and implemented, they can hardly have the effect their creators would hope to achieve.
Dashboards, which provide graphical depictions of up-to-the-minute key performance indicators (KPIs) across a company, are becoming increasingly vital. Customized information relating to the KPIs can be integrated from multiple components into a unified display. The goal is to respond faster to change and put out fires before it is too late. Most companies can't wait until the end of the quarter, the month or even the week before they act. Decision-makers benefit more from a windshield than from a rear-view mirror.
Effective Elements of Excellent Dashboards
Similar to a dashboard on a vehicle, digital or executive dashboards employ data visualization techniques to organize and present information graphically, making it easy to understand at a glance.
Dashboards may be customized in a multitude of ways to display various data points and provide a powerful way of monitoring the organization's performance in real time. By visualizing data through the use of charts, graphs and maps, properly designed dashboards provide a high-level view combined with the ability to drill down into underlying information thus making it easier to identify trends and locate exceptions to the trends. Another key benefit dashboards provide is the ability to have multiple charts displayed at once. This allows users to compare one data set against another at a glance. Users can see how one quarter's sales numbers stack up against the same quarter the previous year or contrast the performance of various manufacturing plants.
Increasingly, businesses are using dashboards to graphically display actual versus target performance for topics as diverse as sales, customer satisfaction, employee performance assessments, merchandise and inventory levels, network performance, Web site hits and so on.
Due to their dynamic, interactive nature, dashboards have the ability to go far beyond static graphs and charts because they can be automatically updated as the incoming data evolves.
What should a dashboard actually look like? That depends on the organization and what the decision-maker's needs are. For instance, a financial services organization might want graphs showing current stock prices or graphs that display how different portfolios compare. A manufacturer might implement a Six Sigma dashboard which tracks whether various plant processes are within targeted time or performance parameters.
The key to dashboard success is delivering accurate, timely and relevant data to decision-makers in a format which is instantly understandable.
When dealing with the data visualization aspects of dashboards, it might seem like a no-brainer, but information is understood much better when the presentation is clean instead of sloppy; sharp instead of pixilated and sophisticated instead of crude. Not all dashboards are created equal. Visual appeal isn't a nice-to-have; it is a representation of the overall quality of the system to its users. Top-level executives are intolerant of slapdash systems. They will both trust and use dashboards that are well-designed from top to bottom and may reject others. The most important internal customers for many dashboard systems are people who choose to drive BMWs to work instead of white Corollas with no hubcaps. They both expect and respect the same quality on their computer screens.