Why MRDCL for crosstabs / tabulations?
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I recently met someone who had collected a lot of marketing and market research data. I was asked whether it was better to prepare one or more PowerPoint presentations or to put the data into an online dashboard. As with most questions like this, the answer was “it depends”. Both have their place as a way of reporting data, but the right solution for you may need some thought. So, what matters?
A PowerPoint presentation is a static document that is designed to convey key information to its readers. An online dashboard is usually interactive and will allow a user to browse data, explore data and produce reports of their own choosing within, of course, the constraints of the dashboard. A dashboard may take some effort to use and, in some cases, may take some learning to use. If there is a lot of data and reporting available within an online dashboard, an irregular user may find it hard to locate the part of the dashboard they want. A PowerPoint presentation, on the other hand, can be read from from front to back or scanned easily to find parts that are of greatest interest. So, you need to decide what level or amount of information users of the data will want and whether, perhaps, the key figures or information are all that will be required.
The next question is whether you know the audience. Are you able to communicate with them to find out what they want? If you know the audience, you can ask them what they want. This is particularly important with an online dashboard. Most of the unsuccessful online dashboards I have seen have suffered from the assumption that someone thinks they know what the audience wants. If you do not have the time to ask potential users what they need in a dashboard or you cannot get access to your users, an online dashboard can become an expensive mistake.
If the audience cannot be accessed or you are allowing the general public, for example, to use the dashboard, it must start as especially easy to use and grow by user feedback. This means approaching the task with some caution and being prepared to have two or more upgrades and the budget necessary to make such refinements.
A PowerPoint report can be emailed, downloaded or shared amongst colleagues. However, there is a risk that it doesn't give enough detail or too much of the content is of little interest. If you have a relatively small amount of data in terms of fields or variables, it may be better to put that data into an online dashboard so that a user can choose what data they view. You may have some users who want an overview and others may want detail - for example, what men aged 55+ living in a particular region spend.
Different data sets have different life spans. The UK Government carries out a census every 10 years which is deemed 'good enough' for the analysis and reporting various users have to carry out. Other data sets may have a very short shelf life. If the data has been collected to make a business decision, the data may be redundant once that decision is made.
PowerPoint reports can be re-visited once they are produced but if you have access to one new PowerPoint report every week retrieving the information you need can be difficult two years later. In practice, PowerPoint reports tend to have a short shelf life. As they are usually much cheaper to produce, they are a good vehicle for finite amounts of information that need to delivered for use of up to, say, six months. A dashboard will often take time to put together, so access to the data may take too long if the information has a short shelf life. On the other hand, if data is being regularly collected on a daily, monthly or quarterly basis, for example, it is likely to be efficient to set up an online dashboard that can be refreshed as new data becomes available.
The big "but" here is that there is no point preparing a dashboard, refining it to meet all the users' needs if the life of the data is short.
Generally, a PowerPoint presentation can be put together relatively quickly. It might be a laborious process for someone and may take time to check, but it is fairly easy to predict how long it will take to prepare from start to finish. An online dashboard is more like a website that evolves over time. Getting it 100% right first time is not easy and gets harder if the user base cannot be consulted or is not known. However, it can grow and be adapted to become a valuable tool for a business, pulling together different sources of data that may have appeared in different or hard to reach places previously.
A dashboard often works best where there is good planning, a long term commitment and some regular information that will be of interest to users. The timescale from inception to delivery will often be three months or more.
Long term dashboards will evolve over time and a budget should be put in place for changes. These changes will range from different company priorities, greater understanding of user needs, a wider group of users having wider needs, new data etc. A dashboard is no different from the focus of any business - it will change over time. Indeed, dashboards that never change can tend to be come stagnant and lose user interest. Business users are no different from leisure users - new features and improvements can make a dashboard more appealing to use.
If you feel that the users of your data want to drill down into different segments of the market, specific groups or any other filters on the data, a dashboard is a necessity. It is possible to generate multiple PowerPoint reports cost effectively, but if you don't want know how the users will want to segment the data, PowerPoint is not the right solution. If the data relates to 300 retail outlets, it is likely that 300 individual reports for each retail outlet and, perhaps, some regional reports will provide everything that may be needed. Automation of PowerPoint may be the right route. However, if you have a mass of data about car owners, it may be harder to predict what users of that data might want to do. Some may want to look specifically at females under 25 who own a new high value car and compare that data with males under 30 who own a mid-price range new car. To produce a report for each possible combination of customer profiles would be impractical. Thinking of what the users might want to do, therefore, is of paramount importance.
Generally, PowerPoint reporting is cheaper. Automation is very practical with PowerPoint where multiple reports are required. Dashboards are generally dearer as they need a consultative process, planning and programming in most cases. If the audience for a dashboard is small, maybe where there is a small team of heavy users, the consultative process and planning cost will be low.
PowerPoint reports are generally easier to change too, whereas changes to an online dashboard may mean reorganisation of data or a significant amount of re-programming.
Online dashboards work best where the user base has been consulted fully, a plan is agreed and there is either long term use of the data or regularly updated data.
There are some cheaper alternatives. Snap, for example, is a competitively priced product that allows you to build online reports and provide clients with licences for less than US$50. What can be provided may be limited, but it is quick and easy to achieve and may the right solution where the information is more important than a customised look and feel. There are some other specialist tools such as Tableau, Dapresy, MarketSight and others, but these tend to be expensive and will have limitations as to what can be produced. Nonetheless, they have some excellent tools to make online reporting achievable through a software package.
As someone who has worked many forms of analysis and reporting for many years, I like to see people spend their money wisely as there are many more options than might first seem obvious. This article compares a PowerPoint presentation with a custom online dashboard. There are other solutions which can give you the right mix of reporting for the users of your data. Use the 'You Ask, We Answer' form on the home page if you need help.