7 Ways to Remain Relevant for Business Intelligence in 2010

This year, while saying “Happy New Year!”, I was also thinking “Good riddance!”. Face it, the year was a really rough one for many of you Dashboard Spy readers. Corporate earnings were horrible, revenues fell off a cliff, I.T. budgets got slashed, and many, many smart, hardworking people were downsized.

I personally attended goodbye lunch after goodbye lunch. The only good thing about them was the drinking!

Things were so bad in 2009, that even staffers on business intelligence related projects – previously thought to be resistant to cancellation – also lost their jobs.

Well, hang tight in 2010. While I can’t promise that things will turn around for your company, I can say that there are very specific steps you can take to make sure you remain a relevant, invaluable team member on business intelligence projects.

Here are my top 7 tips.

1. LEARN ALL YOU CAN ABOUT DASHBOARDS. I remain firmly committed to the idea that the dashboard design pattern is the optimal interface to all business intelligence applications. There is nothing like the “at-a-glance” nature of the dashboard to provide users with the smorgashboard of information they need to do their daily jobs. Dashboards have reached a critical mass. Why even President Obama uses an I.T. project dashboard to make sure that federal government I.T. spending is not out of control.

2. BE THE FIRST TO APPLY SUCCESSFUL SOLUTIONS FROM OTHER DOMAINS TO YOUR PROBLEM SPACE. There is no easier way to show your value in your enterprise than to be an innovator. In today’s economic climate, however, it doesn’t pay to take risks. Check out this clever, risk-free approach – look for things that are creating a splash in other domains, evaluate them to make sure they will add value in your space, and then be the first to introduce the technique. You will look like a hero. What do I mean? Look around in the web 2.0 space or the social media arena and identify innovative things there that you can suggest for your business intelligence application. As an example, perhaps your dashboard application would benefit from a “most popular metrics” section with KPIs voted upon by your community. As another example, look at http://klipfolio.com to see how business dashboards can be shown in a very innovative way by using the desktop widget approach.

3. KNOW YOUR COMPANY’S KEY PERFORMANCE INDICATORS. The easiest way to become familiar with the top issues across your enterprise is to learn each department’s metrics. By identifying the KPIs and then decomposing them into their constituent parts, you learn what makes your enterprise tick. I recommend this approach to everyone, but especially people new to a company or a department within an enterprise.

4. PUT YOUR USERS FIRST. Become the user champion within your project group. Everyone pays lip service to user requirements, but learn the principles of user-centric design and really embrace the user. Insist on plenty of mockups and hold frequent walk-throughs with lots of users. The success of your business intelligence project lies with the perception of your user community. Make them an early part of your development process and get early buy-in. There is no reason for waterfall methodologies in today’s environment. Your users demand a more agile approach. Give it to them.

5. UNDERSTAND THAT INFORMATION VISUALIZATION IS A SCIENCE. Turning data into information is difficult. Turning information into a format that your users can easily understand is even more difficult. Understand the need for true expertise in data visualization. Don’t just slap pie charts all over your dashboards and applications. Find an expert or start studying the subtle do’s and don’t of information visualization. Not only can poor data visualization practices aggravate your users, it can cause wrong decisions to be made based on misleading cues in your application.

6. DON’T GO IT ALONE – WE ARE A COMMUNITY! Long gone are the days of solo practitioners trailblazing their way through early business intelligence techniques and technologies. Business intelligence and dashboarding resources abound these days. Learn from your fellow B.I. experts the best practices that will ensure the success of your project. Start with http://dashboardspy.com/experts and http://enterprise-dashboard.com.

7. REVISIT YOUR BUY VERSUS BUILD ANALYSIS. It’s not a cut and dried decision. Many excellent arguments exist for buying a business dashboard package off the shelf, building your dashboard application, or taking a hybrid approach where you combine the best of both worlds and customize an existing product. With the economy the way it is, and the prevalence of outsourcing, you can get great value when it comes to hiring talent. Advances in user interface programming allow for easy creation of compelling UI elements into your application. Of course, on the other hand, the off-the-shelf business intelligence dashboard and reporting packages are stronger than ever. What I’m saying is that at the start of this new year, you shouldn’t take any of your past decisions for granted. Revisit everything in light of our current situation and make the appropriate decisions.

A very happy new year from Hubert Lee, The Dashboard Spy!

Google Analytics Marketing Dashboard

Enterprise Dashboard Example from the Desk of The Dashboard Spy (dashboardspy.com) – Long time readers know that I always approach business dashboard design with a fierce user-centric focus. My background as a user experience director and information architect just doesn’t allow me to do otherwise. (In fact, I’m the originator of a user-centric approach called Users FIRST that I’ll describe in a future post)

Designing a successful user experience (a business intelligence dashboard, in this case) requires an understanding of the true wants and needs of the end user. Note that I use the word “true” when describing a user’s requirements. In my experience, the “true” desires of a user are often not explicitly stated by the user and have to be drawn out. Successfully doing so requires a patient and sincere bonding experience with the user.

In today’s enterprise dashboard example, I highlight a dashboard that is successful exactly because the designers understand the user’s “true” hot buttons. It’s a marketing metrics dashboard from Klipfolio.com, the makers of “desktop dashboards” – widget / gadget like dashboards that reside on the desktop level (they appear automatically when you turn on your pc and can expand and collapse to the sides of your screen).

Specifically, the dashboard that I have in mind is the Klipfolio Google Analytics Dashboard. It’s for web marketers and analysts looking to track the performance of their website in terms of marketing metrics. Typical KPIs include top keywords, visitor statistics, goal conversion rates, etc.

Let’s take a look at the Google Analytics Dashboard first and then I’ll tell you why I think this dashboard is so successful (hint: It gives the user something they really want).

Google Analytics Dashboard from Klipfolio

Here’s why I think that this dashboard really hits the user’s needs square on. Of course, it offers the user those metrics that they really want. In fact, the Klipfolio Dashboard for Google Analytics lets the user choose from what they call “Klips” to put on their dashboard via a control panel. Users can tailor the selection they want from many web site stats and calculations. But the real “secret sauce” of this dashboard is that the designers understood the psychology of the marketing user and their incredible need (sometimes outrageously extreme) to keep refreshing their screens to see the latest Google stats. How many people have hit “refresh” over and over again to see how many new conversions or visitors they get?

By incorporating the “desktop dashboard” approach to information delivery where the data display becomes part of your desktop and automatically refreshing the Google data, this dashboard neatly meets a major need for the user – automatic updates of web stats that are constantly in view yet don’t obscure their desktop nor interfere with their work flow.

I just love the idea. It’s perfect for web analytics and I think can be applied to many other areas of the enterprise.

The Klipfolio Dashboard for Google Analytics just got released in a new version. Here are some details from Klipfolio:

Better visibility into web analytics data benefits marketing professionals, new media agencies, and web masters alike. Klipfolio Dashboard for Google Analytics helps those professionals and organizations improve web-based marketing ROI by removing barriers to using Google Analytics more effectively and often.

Unlike web-based or other applications that must be opened and can hide behind other windows, Klipfolio Dashboard for Google Analytics is a desktop sidebar that keeps key web metrics always visible for “top of mind” awareness and at-a-glance understanding. It enables side-by-side comparison of KPI reports, with current and previous date ranges to provide context and trending information.

With Klipfolio Dashboard for Google Analytics, web-site analysts can read accounts with multiple websites and sub-domains in one place. Its unique ability to duplicate Klips – the small graphical displays that make up Klipfolio dashboards – enables side-by-side goal tracking of multiple websites.

Klipfolio has also updated its Google Adwords Klip to provide more information and Goal Conversion Rate data for Traffic Sources, Adwords, Keywords, and Goals. Its sorting capabilities mean users can quickly see what is performing best, filter out nonperformers, and key in on what matters most. They can drill down on traffic sources for a summary, and then drill into their top referring sites for details.

Klipfolio Dashboard for Google Analytics lets users choose among a variety of Klips, so they can display the web analytics and trends over time that matter to them. Available Klips include top keywords, Web visitor statistics (including page views and bounce rates), traffic sources, goal performance, and Google Adwords campaign performance metrics.

Download the sample and try it out. Let me know if you find the desktop dashboard approach useful and compelling. It’s certainly neat!


Hubert Lee
The Dashboard Spy

Federal Dashboard Reaches 20 Million Hits in 2 Weeks

In a recent Dashboard Spy post about the Federal Dashboard (see http://enterprise-dashboard.com), I lauded the efforts of Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, especially his recent work with the IT Dashboard. Some of you probably thought I was a bit over the top with all my gushing praise about the dashboard and my claim that this ushers in a new level of user consciousness about business dashboards.

Well, the buzz just keeps on growing, and I’m more in love with the IT Dashboard project than ever!

Remember this picture I showed of a certain user taking a look at the Federal IT Dashboard?

Obama Dashboard

Well, it turns out that that President Obama wasn’t the only dashboard user. In the 2 weeks since the launch of the IT dashboard, there have been over 20 million hits. It’s too bad that “hits” as a measure is still being used, because I’d really like to know how many unique visitors there were to the dashboard.

Anyway, my point is that this business dashboard project is extraordinary not only because of the visibility it brings to the government IT spending metrics that it reports on (we know how much we can use greater management transparency!), but because of the incredible visibility of the project itself. The fact that the President of the United States is one of the users giving your dashboard the once over is probably quite thrilling. It brings a whole new meaning to “let’s pay a little attention to the user interface!”.

Also, I’m sure that, once in a while, you worry about your application’s peak loads and how it’s handling a surge of users. Well, how would you like to worry about the infrastructure issues for this project? I suppose that we’re talking world class infrastructure and maintenance.

The other interesting item I wanted to bring to your attention was that the Federal CIO has been blogging about the dashboard and is asking for your feedback and input on future functionality. Check out the IT Dashboard Blog and this statement from Kundra:

For anybody just joining us, the“IT Dashboard” is a new, one-stop clearinghouse of information that allows anyone with a web browser to track federal IT initiatives and hold the government accountable for progress and results. A part of USASpending.gov, the dashboard allows you to see what IT projects are working and on-schedule (and which are not), offer alternative approaches, and provide direct feedback to the chief information officers at federal agencies – in effect, keeping tabs on the people who are responsible for taxpayer dollars for technology.

Leading up to the launch, we tapped the brightest and most innovative minds from Federal agencies, Congress, independent oversight organizations, and the private sector as we built the IT Dashboard. Over 400 federal employees joined our daily open house sessions for a hands-on opportunity to try the Dashboard, check their data, and suggest improvements. Until July 31, CIOs can submit investment evaluations and update other investment data. During this time, you will notice that the site will continue to be in “beta” as we deliver additional key features.

But we can’t simply make this an exercise in federal agency reporting. That is why we started this blog. We want to hear from you about what works and what doesn’t with the site. Is there a more innovative approach that an investment should consider? Does the contract data look incorrect to you? Is there an application that we should add? This is a site to serve you, and to do that, we need to hear from you.

So bookmark this blog, and come back to us often. There is a lot happening over the next few weeks as we review the entire federal IT portfolio, assess the performance of investments, identify areas to save money, improve performance, and share best practices.

Tags: Obama dashboard, federal dashboard, federal it dashboard, IT dashboard

2009 Year of the Mashup Dashboard

If poring over another year’s worth of business intelligence dashboards has taught me anything, it’s that the very form and structure of a digital dashboard is what gives it such value and utility. We’ve heard it said over and over from many a dashboard design guru that a dashboard should be a single page, easy-to-absorb, summary of your most key performance indicators. I agree that this “at-a-glance” nature of a business dashboard is its most core attribute.

Just as imagery can be such a powerful device in poetry, the snapshot that a dashboard provides can be the strongest call-to-action for corporate managers. Think of a dashboard as the haiku form of business intelligence. What is more compelling – a 30 page printed report or a handful of charts and alerts right there on the screen in front of you?

The fact that we are constrained by the screen real estate of a single page dashboard forces us to prioritize. During the dashboard design process, we are challenged to indentify the KPIs and metrics that most matter to us. The fact that we can only select 4 charts, for example, means that those 4 charts must be the most meaningful.

Looking through all those dashboard screenshots during this last year, however, has shown me that the world of dashboard content is limitless. What particular chart or metric shows up on my dashboard or your dashboard does not mean that it is what is desired by our coworkers. The content of a dashboard doesn’t even have to be driven by databases that we own. Dashboard portlets can contain navigation elements to other systems, mini applications, images or anything else of value to the user.

We have looked at the concept of enterprise dashboards as mashups. Many business intelligence gurus are forecasting mashups as a huge trend for dashboards in 2009.

A recent podcast by BriefingsDirect titled “Analyts Make 2009 Predictions for Enterprise IT, SOA, Cloud and Business Intelligence” examines the major trends for IT in 2009. Click on the link for the transcript and the podcast itself. Note the emphasis on mashup dashboards as part of “Extreme BI” as driven by end user needs.

We’ll see more BI become social networking, in the sense of mashup as a style of BI application, reporting, dashboards, and development. Mashups for user self-service BI development will come to the fore. It will be a huge theme in the BI space in 2009 and beyond of that.

Finally, let me point out that from the view point of the end user, dashboards in general (and mashup dashboards in particular) have become more accessible that ever. Without the intervention of the IT department, business users can create their own mashup dashboards right now.

We’ve looked at how easy and powerful Google Sites dashboards can be. Check out that link to see some awesome free dashboard templates from Google. We’ve looked at Google Sites for Project management dashboards as well.

On those earlier posts, we didn’t look under the hood at exactly how the Google Sites dashboards allow for mashup of content, so let’s take a quick peek now.

Here is the configuration mode for the Google Sites dashboard template. Note how each dashboard portlet can be configured with whatever content you want. Pick from whatever content you would find helpful on your personal dashboard. Truely, it’s a dashboard end users world now. Welcome to 2009.

Google Sites Dashboard Configuration

Tags: Configuration of Google Sites Dashboard, Mashup Dashboards, Extreme BI, business intelligence dashboards, year of the mashup dashboard

Intranets, Portals and Dashboards, Oh My!

A couple of posts ago, Dashboard Spy readers debated the definition of a dashboard. Some stated that the dashboard metaphor as a layout pattern or navigation device makes for a perfectly fine dashboard – even if it didn’t contain business intelligence artifacts such as metrics or charts. Others insisted that dashboards as we study them here must tell you something about the state of your business. Similarly, we have debated the difference between a dashboard and a scorecard.

Today we look at the fine lines between intranets, portals and dashboards. If you adhere to the “dashboard as a layout pattern” argument, then there doesn’t seem to be muxh of a difference between a portal and a dashboard. Both are often single page / multiple tab constructs that add value to the user by bringing disparate information together onto a single screen. If you belong to the “dashboards show a summary of your business” school, then what do we call those applications that mix business metrics portlets with news feeds? Think of sharepoint dashboards – are they dashboards or portals? Take a look at this demo of a SharePoint marketing dashboard and you’ll see a mixing of portal and dashboard type content.

The best way to get a feel for what is what (and for that matter, whether it’s important at all to differentiate and names these various dashboard-like applications) is to simply visit examples and decide for yourself.

For example, let’s take a look at an intranet/portal/dashboard product. adenin Technologies offers the “IntelliEnterprise Intranet Suite” as an “unbelievably complete intranet suite”. The adenin Live Demo Site allows us to explore an intranet installation that includes enterprise portals, document management sites, dashboards, workflow and more. There’s a lot in this suite which is perfect for this discussion.

The demo starts with a gateway page that allows you to simulate various user roles:

Adenin Intranet Demo User Profiles

You should visit the demo and lead yourself through the various modules, but let’s take a look at a couple of screens that caught my eye.

Click on the images below to enlarge them.

Portal Page on the Corporate Intranet

Portal Page on the Corporate Intranet

The above screenshot is that of the corporate portal. It seems like a typical intranet page, with a web portal-style layout. But look at the right column and you’ll see a portlet titled “New Order Volume”. Ah!! – a business metric makes an appearance. So does this make this a dashboard? Or a portal? Or a corporate intranet with business intelligence sensibilities?

Now take a look at this: (click on the more link for the rest of this post)

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Dashboards As Navigation

When is a dashboard a dashboard? Recently we looked at the Dell IdeaStorm Dashboard and one of the comments was “How is this a dashboard? It might be a portal, but all it does is list links of other things to go look at. It actually contains precious little real information.” If you bring up that dashboard example, you’ll see that the dashboard consists of a panel of portlets with text and links. Here’s a small screenshot. Click the thumbnail of the dashboard to enlarge it to see the detail.

This Dell IdeaStorm Dashboard consists of text descriptions and links.

This Dell IdeaStorm Dashboard consists of text descriptions and links.

That comment got me to thinking. Is there such a thing as a “real” dashboard? What makes something a dashboard?

I personally have always considered navigation as a legitimate goal of a dashboard. By categorizing information into the various “buckets”, a dashboard consisting of text and links does add value. It summarizes information and leads to further analysis. Summary information can definitely be enough to encourage action.

The Dell dashboard shown above has a mix of “real information” along with links. It shows a line of a particular suggestion and other data values. What about a dashboard that has just links? Will it still offer value?

Let’s take a look at AgencyTool’s Web Design Dashboard. It is a dashboard of resource links. There is categorization of topics via the use of portlets. You can hover over the links and get a synopsis of the resource that the link will take you to, but the intent of this dashboard is clearly that of a navigation device.

The screengrab of the dashboard is big, so click on the thumbnail below to enlarge the dashboard.

An Example of a Navigation Dashboard. Do you consider this a "real" dashboard?

Here is a closeup of the hover over / tool tip technique to provide information about the link destination.

Hover over links on the dashboard to see the destination details

So the question is this:

While a dashboard is clearly a design paradigm that can be leveraged for the clarity that it can bring as a visual design pattern, must one have business metrics on it to be considered a business dashboard? Isn’t a dashboard layout simply enough to qualifiy it as a “real” dashboard?

My own thinking is that navigation and categorization can bring plenty of value to business users and that our definition of business dashboards must also include dashboards as a visual design pattern. Many custom applications being built today have a “dashboard” tab on it that acts both as a summary of key information and as a drill-down starting point / navigation panel.

I say that this example is indeed a “dashboard”. What do you think?

Tags: Definition of Dashboard, Dashboards as a Design Pattern

When a Dashboard Goes Red

Dashboard Design Topic: Using Colors for Business Dashboard Alerts

You hear about a problem so you log on to your business dashboard looking for red alerts among your KPIs and metrics. Not an uncommon use case, right? Your dashboard should clearly alert you to the conditions most requiring attention. Well, let’s spend this post talking about how to display alert conditions.

First off, think about the “heirarchy of alerts” that exist in your organization. There are, of course, the low-level everyday advisory types of alerts. “Did you know?” style alerting includes announcements and reminders such as service advisories. Then there are more of the health status indications. These are what we think of when we want to report on the state of KPIs and metrics. The real challenge here is to design the alerts such that they stand out on your busy dashboard.

We’ll address some of the principles behind the effective design of alerts, but first I’d like you to visit this post for a humorous look at the idea of the “heirarchy of alerts“.

Getting back to designing alerts on dashboards, take a look at the “Red Alerts” in this graphic below. There are 7 of them:

Dashboard Icons Picking out the Red Alerts

Now take a look at the 7 Red Alerts in this graphic:

Easy to Pick out the Red Alerts

This visual design exercise simply shows that when you reduce visual “noise”, the “signal” becomes much easier to understand.

Let’s illustrate this principal with a great example contributed by Dashboard Spy reader Mike Gaffney, a talented software architect and dashboard designer at BoxTone, a company that monitors mobile application service levels. In his blog post titled The BoxTone Dashboard and the Blackberry Outage, Mike shares his view that dashboards must use strong color values only to indicate alert states:

If you quickly glance at the dashboard in its normal state (version 1) and the dashboard in its “alert” state (version 2), you should immediately notice that version 2 stands out more. It stands out more because of the careful and restrained use of colors.

Unlike many other dashboards, the BoxTone Dashboard uses highly saturated colors only when there is a problem. Edward Tufte’s, Envisioning Information (1990), has a chapter entitled “Color and Information” which provides an excellent overview on the use of color. When everything is normal, the BoxTone Dashboard looks, well … normal.

Our users are highly intelligent people. They do not need bright green check marks to make them feel good about themselves. They bought BoxTone to tell them when something is wrong. And when something is wrong, they want to know what it is and quickly!

A single bright red dot on a calm page screams out and demands the user’s immediate attention. On February 11, 2008 (date of the RIM Blackberry Outage), this technique is what allowed our users to know instantly that the problem was a global one.

Here are some screenshots showing what Mike is talking about.

Here is the BoxTone dashboard in it’s normal state. Click on the dashboard screenshot to enlarge the dashboard.

boxtone blackberry monitoring dashboard

Now take a look at the dashboard in an alert condition:

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Oracle JD Edwards Plant Management Dashboard

Dashboard Topic: Operational Management Dashboards, Manufacturing Plant Dashboard

Thanks goes to the Dashboard Spy Reader who sent me the link to the pdf from Oracle titled Plant Manager’s Dashboard. This really helps out another Dashboard Spy reader who was recently assigned to a manufacturing plant analytics project.

The Oracle JD Edwards EnterpriseOne Plant Management Dashboard leverages data from the central ERP database and displays metrics for the following areas:

  • Revenue Management
  • Customer Shipment Performance
  • Manufacturing Performance

Here’s a quick screengrab from the pdf, but page down for a listing of the operational metrics used.

Oracle JD Edwards Dashboard

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