The Misunderstood Dashboard

Last Updated: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 by Rhys Morgan

Almost as soon as they came into existence, Dashboards have been criticised for their limitations as business tools, particularly their tendency to focus more on visual splendour. I recently read a very informative article by Bostonian tech writer Alan R. Earls, published by This article, titled “Clutter, data overload put dashboard designs on path to failure” , highlighted what some professionals felt were major problems of dashboards in business. I encourage you to read this article too, as it is very well written and offers valuable insight into how real businesses view and use dashboards.

What is particularly enlightening about the article is that Earls has separated various opinions of different industry professionals into what I find are two major failures when creating and using Dashboards in general: Too much focus on the data and not on their ability to be understood by users, and a lack of flexibility and practicality. Earls then offers some solutions to these problems from industry experts.

As someone who is passionate about Business Dashboards, I feel that dashboards have been misunderstood a little in their use. I’ve therefore written this article to show you some ways in which Dashboard Software can used to reduce these common problems.

1. Too much focus on data for its own sake

In Earl’s article, he interviews Steven A. Lowe, CEO of Innovator LLC (Tennessee), a software development provider. Lowe bemoans the fact that dashboards are often full of ‘clutter’. That is, the information on the dashboard cannot be understood unless the data is scrutinised. Sometimes, irrelevant information is presented from presentation’s sake, just to get all the data onto the dashboard.

I am in total agreement with this; I often see dashboard users compact their information into one screen. Sometimes, a slew of KPIs will be crammed into around 6 charts, giving the dashboard a ‘summary’-like feel. While dashboards can be used like this, I feel that to do this with no express purpose other than to show it undermines the dashboard’s usefulness.

As a colleague of mine has discussed, two dashboard charts are sometimes better than one if you have a large amount of data to convey. Using two charts, a large amount of data such as three years of sales profits can be shown from a few different perspectives, such as a ‘near view’ and a ‘far view’.

As you can see, the far view on the left shows the data as it is, straight from a table. However, this chart is crowded and hard to read, which makes it difficult for viewers to discern a trend in the data. The near view on the left, on the other hand, shows the most recent six months of this data in bar form. You can see here that there is a clear ascending trend, which is easier to see than in the complete chart.

While some might try to put multiple graphs into the same chart to ‘save space’, you can see how taking more space adds impact to important data. What’s more, only communicating one or two KPIs in a dashboard will make it far easier to read at a glance or skim over. As Lowe phrases in Earls’ article, if managers have to analyse their dashboards in detail to get the information they need, then the dashboard has failed to do its job of providing quick, easily understood data.

2. Dashboards which aren’t created for the User

Another common dashboard mistake uncovered in the article is the tendency for dashboards to not take their end users into account as stated by Bill Brydges of the MorganFranklin consultancy in Virginia. Too often, dashboards are made to be visually spectacular, while sacrificing practical use for the end user. I offer a possible reason for the prevalence of this mistake.

Traditionally, in order to create a dashboard for managerial or meeting purposes, the manager had to put in a request for a member of IT/technical support to create a dashboard using some data, which the manager provides. However, what you have here is a limitation of the traditional way of creating dashboard reports. While the tech guy usually knows the dashboard software to a far greater degree than the manager, all he or she can do is present exactly what is asked of them. Though this might seem obvious, take a second to dwell on that point.

When the dashboard comes back (sometimes taking a few weeks), the tendency is for the dashboards to be constructed according to the manager’s exact specifications, but this often results in the dashboard not being very flexible. Often, managers will require more information to glean meaningful trends from dashboard charts, which will result in another time-consuming request for tech support. This makes decision making a lengthy process, which can result in missed opportunities. After all, how can managers do their jobs if their tools don’t show them what they need, when they need it?

The answer to this does not come from a method which one can do with their dashboard software, but from giving the manager control of his or her own software. By doing this, managers can not only create which makes the most sense to them, but also experiment with that data to uncover information which might have gone unnoticed. While traditional dashboard software is usually handled by tech-support, emerging online dashboard software such as Target Dashboard is designed for managers to use, allowing them to easily create stunning dashboards which are meaningful and informative to the right people.

Dashboards can be easy, effective business tools

To summarise Alan R. Earl’s article, managers in the business world have found dashboards to be more often used for aesthetic appeal, rather than as a business management tool in its own right. This I wholeheartedly agree with.

However, while I share his opinion, I believe it is more to do with dashboards being misunderstood in their use, rather than a trait of dashboards themselves. As this post has just shown, two of the most common problems people usually encounter with dashboards can be averted by sacrificing visual splendour for practicality and allowing managers to take advantage of that practicality for themselves.

So what if a dashboard doesn’t look like something found in a jet fighter, with multiple gauges, indicators and lines criss-crossing over each other in an important-looking way becoming some sort of Rube Goldberg machine? As long as it shows a meaningful trend from which meaningful action can be taken, it has served its purpose. For more information and ideas on how to use your online dashboard software in the most effective way, take a look at our Dashboard Best Practice Guide.