In October 1908, Henry Ford launched a revolution that still dominates our lives.

Nope, it wasn't the invention of the automobile, nor the internal combustion engine. Ford didn't actually have much hand in those. They had been around for decades, but had been expensive and complex to maintain. A master was required to monitor ignition timing, the ideal air and fuel balance, as well as the engine temperature. Sounds like a headache—especially when you're supposed to be watching the road, right?

Ford decided to do something profoundly different and—dare we say—revolutionary.

He made driving easy.

That's it. Ease as revolution.

The Model T Ford had just one lever and a single gauge on its dashboard. As Ford had promised of the automobile earlier:

It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”

With his simple, well-designed dashboard, he took leading-edge technology and shaped it into a practical tool.

Over a hundred years have passed, and dashboards have evolved beyond recognition. Now we rely on them not only to drive our cars, but also to drive our businesses.

Business dashboards are the most powerful tools to be offered to the enterprise world since the start of data capturing. And yet, despite many efforts to provide such valuable insight, few current solutions offer anything like the full potential for dashboards. Worse, too many rely on a convoluted system that is far too similar to those car dashboards that required an expert to manage them.

Now, we have to consider some of the same questions as Ford.

Where's the line between a useful tool and a distracting display? When does clutter become dangerous? Where can we simplify?

Finally, how can we make it all just a bit easier? Perhaps even, better?

What Drives the Need for Business Dashboards?

Data volumes are increasing at ridiculous speeds – from megabytes to gigabytes to terabytes. It's more important than ever to be able to consume, or reject, information quickly and easily.

A business dashboard is a valuable tool that shapes data into understandable insights through Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), metrics, and other critical data points. With graphic data, we can better digest complex information and make business decisions at the actual speed of business.

We know what you're thinking—a good 20-page report could do the same thing, more simply.

Not exactly.

Our new business environment has a few more requirements that a report just can't handle:

  • The need for visibility: The faster you're driving your business; the further ahead you need to see on the road. Without clear visibility, you may play safe, slow down, and get left behind. Or you may try to rely on past memories of the route– not wise in a fast-moving world! The best business dashboards can move just as fast as your business and keep the road wide open and clear for you to see the whole way.
  • The need for acceleration: In a dynamic business environment, conditions evolve by the second. Time-consuming reporting processes simply can't keep up. You can't expect to have time for the back and forth between IT and Finance (and the multiple other departments involved), multiple revisions, data dumps, and pivot tables. It's a mess. It's always been a mess. Dashboards allow people to see, understand, and take action on information directly when it's needed.
  • The need for agility: It's also about reaction time. How quickly can you move focus and direction? In business you need GPS-type agility: an automatic warning if you're off-course and an instant revision of the route after a wrong turn. That type of agility doesn't come by sifting through pages of data from static reports.
  • The need to stand out: Competitive advantage is key. Let's be honest—you're not the only one investing in IT to drive performance. Business dashboards open up a new way to generate revenue and create differentiation. Sharing reliable information between departments helps to align efforts. Just–in-time manufacturing can feed on sales forecasts, while Sales can use a customer’s payment history as part of the negotiation on the next deal. Flexible and easy-to-consume dashboards help distribute information more freely in and between departments. You can even share relevant information securely with customers.
  • The need to walk tall: Dashboards bring everyone together on the same page for a shared result – building confidence in the data, your people, and your business.

Why Can't We Just Improve Reporting?

Consider how fast you respond to a road sign, versus the time it takes you to read a sentence on a billboard.

It's not a long time, but when you're going over 60 MPH, that second counts for a lot more.

That split-second difference occurs because humans process graphic, or short numerical, information much faster than we do text. It actually comes down to neuroscience (oh yeah, we're going there).

Signals from our eyes are processed through a visual cortex that has evolved to process information very quickly to keep us safe from predators. Processing raw data, on the other hand, relies on the slower processes of the cerebral cortex.

Because of this, a movement in the corner of your vision makes you leap to safety – and it takes another second to work out that it was a twig rather than a snake.

This neurological difference has spurred a market of data visualization tools to make complicated, detailed data easier to digest. Many take visualizations to the extreme, focusing on glitz and glitter, bells and whistles at the expense of what's really important.

While we're at it: what does make a dashboard better?

What Makes a Good Dashboard?

We're bringing it back to ease.

Ford recognized how people actually would drive cars in the future. The best business dashboards also predict what a user needs and provide it. Easily. No muss, no fuss.

Business people often assume they just need more data, whether in their reports or their dashboards. Often, what they really need is the right data.

Consider the fuel gauge on a long journey: do you really need to know how many gallons are in the tank? Nope. You need to know how far until you run out of gas. A small, but significant, difference. (But, for the person stranded on the side of the road, a significant one.)

Today’s cars tell you exactly how many miles you have until stranded becomes a concern.

The same applies to business dashboards: they shouldn't waste your time with information that leaves you guessing or makes you take unnecessary risks. Instead, dashboards should focus on KPIs (key performance indicators) that answer the real question on your mind.

Secondly, dashboards should be simple. In both cars and business, dashboards are cleaning up. Complexity is distracting, dangerous, and it gets in the way. A good business dashboard will highlight critical information front and center to show what’s happening while keeping your eyes on the road ahead.

Next dashboards should be visual – and that means more (or less) than pretty. They might display just one metric or a chart, or even a single number if that's what is needed.

The best dashboards also make it personal. A dashboard that is customizable to personal preferences increases usability and end-satisfaction. Decision-making is better served that way than by broadcasting out standard dashboards that users either resent or ignore. A good business dashboard gives every user the flexibility to personalize it on the spot to match their needs or preferences.

Finally, dashboards should keep it organized. Users should be able to group relevant information together to tell a story. Their story, for their department, for their business.

What Makes a Business Dashboard the Worst?

We've spoken to many businesses and we've heard the same gripe over and over again: a shiny new dashboard that's a complete flop. Employees hate it. Managers resent it. IT actively ignores it.

After you've put all that time into implementation and training, you want a dashboard that actually works effectively, right? What should you avoid in order to find it?

  1. Avoid those ones that put it all out there: It's like a terribly painted car. You know that bright purple car with yellow racing stripes will never go faster, no matter how much the racing stripes beg to differ. And, well, it's just awful to look at. In the same way, a dashboard that has too much stuff is quickly going to become overwhelming. Too many colors, disjointed layouts, unnecessary movement, flashing lights, or even too much data can create visual overload. Even relevant information can be overwhelming. If your dashboard is making your life harder, turn it off.
  1. Avoid dashboards that get stuck in a rut: Sometimes it might help to have several windows open on different aspects of your business, but at other times it's best to be able to call up data relevant to the work t hand. Find a solution that lets you divide, group, and organize data to your own needs.
  1. Avoid dashboards that only look out the rear view mirror: Unless you include real-time information, users will be relying on past data that won’t give you enough confidence for smart decisions for right now. The present.

State-of-the-Art Dashboard Technologies

Not so long ago some companies printed out their KPIs each day and posted them on a whiteboard for the whole company to see. Since then, new technologies are turbocharging the dashboard concept.

Database technologies – like in-memory and columnar databases – allow billions of records to be organized, aggregated, and presented in seconds. This eliminates the need for old-school cubes yet allows the use of original, detailed source records to craft your dashboard with confidence.

Hardware like Hadoop adds big data functionality by consolidating many ordinary servers into functioning like a supercomputer. The cloud goes even further by moving hardware, and hardware management, out of the local server room and into shared data centers to scale on demand.

Technology allows us personally and professionally to connect to what interests us, 24/7, in any time zone, and virtually every location. With the best dashboard technologies, you can enjoy the same experience in your office, in a plane, on your tablet, or on your phone.

As these technologies go mainstream, the entry costs tumble, along with total cost of ownership, time to benefit, and risk management. Robust and beautiful dashboard solutions should plug-and-play in days, not months. Cloud capabilities eliminate hardware buy time and the need for specialist installers. Subscription dashboard offerings banish massive capital outlays.

What's on the Road Ahead?

Technology is changing the game for dashboards, but it's also leading us toward the next evolution in business information too. Already, companies are looking at how technology can help us jump beyond the dashboard. Here's what to watch for.

  • Alerts: Instead of staring at the dashboard, you can keep your eyes on the road ahead with customized alerts to sound when KPIs get critical.
  • Predictive and rolling forecasting: This allows for the constant revision of milestones on the route to success, keeping your team honest about its success and excited for upcoming challenges.
  • Personalization: Imagine a Twitter-like feed showing KPIs you care about. If one catches your eye, you can easily let it connect you to its dashboard, share it with your colleagues to discuss, and then analyze it in real time.
  • Collaboration: Future dashboards will facilitate discussions within your team about what’s happening in a searchable and sharable way. Collaboration will also be encouraged when you're notified about relevant conversations and allowed to share lessons between teams and departments.
  • Data discovery: This trend starts with dashboards and KPIs, then addresses how users react to something of interest on the dashboard. This technology will let you dig into the underlying data to better understand the why and how.
  • Unknown insights: Dashboards are set up to answer questions you've already asked. Helpful, but there could be more. Imagine the next level: being offered new and unknown insights. Technology will enable systems to assess and analyze data so you can detect correlations and causations. Even if you don’t know what questions to ask, tomorrow’s dashboards will be able to predict the answers you need to see.

Dashboards are leading business into exciting new territory. As functionality increases, ease and simplicity still hold sway. A well-designed visual display fosters better, faster decisions for your business.
So, get your hands on the wheel today and start driving. Because the real learning comes from practice.

(About the author: Julie Holmes is a business strategy leader from the Hubble Team at Insight Software)