Including Descriptive Data in your KPI Dashboards

Last Updated: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 by Rhys Morgan

One of the types of KPI data which clients often come to us with is detailed, descriptive data, such as notes on projects or a list of customers. People are often at a loss for what to do with this type of data, as it is not as easy to chart as standard KPI data.

This article will show you 3 of the best ways to include detailed data in your KPI dashboards. Although your data might be a little different than the data used in this article, it is very easy to implement these tips.

What is ‘Descriptive’ Data?

In the context of this article, data is ‘descriptive’ when the categories associated with it are individual-level (e.g. a long list of customers) or serves as additional information to an actual KPI value (notes and status). This is often seen in management data in excel, which many companies use out of habit. For example, a project management spreadsheet may have a simple Project Management KPI such as percentage completion of a project. This percentage value can be easily charted across time, or averaged. However, imagine that you also keep a record of the various stages a project is in, purely as notes in Excel.

Note that each of the project milestones and Issues is unique to each project. These notes are important, but cannot be conventionally charted.

As this article by Stephen Few notes, the main purpose of KPI dashboards is to give users instant information for decision making; too much detail on a dashboard requires analysis, which makes the creation of the dashboard pointless. However, sometimes detailed data is effectively a KPI, so methods are required to include this information without compromising the usefulness of the dashboard.

1. Table Summaries

An effective way to include detailed textual data in a dashboard is to display it as a summary in an area of your dashboard. By including values and dates to give it context, textual data can be used to effectively make quick decisions.

In this example, you can see that the textual information is displayed alongside some numerical KPIs, as well as their associated dates. This lets it remain meaningful for analysis, and organizes the information so that it is easy to access. Also, it is best to place your table summary so that it is accessible but not intrusive, preferably at the side of the dashboard.

However, bear in mind that everyone’s data is different; if detailed information is crucial for decision-making and meaningful actions, it may be best to place a table summary at the focal point of your dashboard, such as the center. Doing this lets users quickly compare these details to the other KPIs in their dashboards to find useful trends.

2. Display the Top Selection of Individual Level Data

In the first section, I used project status notes as an example of detailed KPI data. While table summaries are great for showing detailed notes that cannot be charted, it is often not the best way to present individual level data that is categorised. Many of our clients often wish to visualize information such as a list of customer orders. Here is an example, again from Excel.

example kpi chart

As such, the name of each client acts as a category which the data could be filtered by. However, as each client name is unique, what you end up with is a list of categories that is too long to be effectively shown in a chart. We therefore need a way to organize this information in a way which actually aids decision making.

To do this, many dashboard applications let you create a category chart which only includes the most important information from a large list of categories. In a program such as Target Dashboard, you can easily achieve this by selecting whether you want to display a selection of the largest values in your data set.

example chart

In this example, we have the five largest values from our customer list, which will change as the data is updated to include new customers. This allows the dashboard users to monitor their best customers, and decide where they should focus their marketing and other activities. By only showing the most significant values from a list of unique data, a long list of unique information can become a useful tool.

3. Adding Notes to Dashboard Charts and Reports

As mentioned previously, it is best to keep your KPI dashboards from having excessively detailed information. Therefore, it is often best to include this information in on your dashboard in a way which is easily accessible, yet unobtrusive.

Because detailed information is often text based, adding this info as notes on a dashboard chart is a great way to have that information to hand if needed. For example, you could assign textual notes to an individual dashboard chart, and have them accessible from a menu.

chart example

Regarding these notes, Target Dashboard will also take these notes and display them in its own PDF reports; if KPI reports have to be shared with colleagues, they will also receive this useful information alongside the metrics, giving them all the information they need for decision making.

While this method might be a little time-consuming (as individual notes will often have to be entered by hand), it ensures that your detailed information doesn’t interfere with the dashboards ability to provide quick information at a glance.

Use these Tips to Display Individualised Information in Your Dashboards

Dashboards are best used to display information which doesn’t need to be scrutinised to be useful; in other words, for instant information. However, many managers still use spreadsheets and the like to manage lists of data which hasn’t been (or cannot be) grouped together. This information is still useful, but needs to be approached slightly differently to be analysed and acted on effectively.

This article has been written to show you three ways which this information can be handled in standard KPI dashboards. While it’s usually best to leave detailed information out of dashboards, these tips will let you include them in meaningful way.

To try out these tips for yourself, why not check out our free guided tour of the Target Dashboard software. Alternatively, take a look at our visual dashboard database for more tips on visualising different kinds of information.