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Online dashboards have been around for around 20 years, but their presence in the marketing and market research industry has only started to come to the fore over the last five years or so. Additionally, only the largest projects were considered suitable for dashboarding, mainly due to timescales and costs, whereas improved technologies have opened the way for most projects to be considered.
There are three main types of dashboard, although I would accept that there are grey areas between two of these types. These are what I call quick dashboards, software generated dashboards and customised dashboards. Each has its place and each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. The purpose of this article is to outline those advantages and disadvantages and to explain which areas MRDC Software as a company covers.
Within each of these types of dashboards, there are two types of dashboards. You might think of these as static, view only dashboards, which are often called executive dashboards and interactive dashboards where there may be several tabs, selections, filters, drill-down facilities or other options and views. Again, there are grey areas – executive dashboards with a small number of options to display data or show different results, for example.
I am not sure if there is another generic name for what I call quick dashboards, but let me try to spell out what they are. These are dashboards that convey key figures, usually on one screen, often as figures, percentages or averages, although sometimes as charts or other infographics. Depending on the application, they may be results that are updated in real time or with some other frequency. Their main purpose is to make key figures (often called KPIs or key performance indicators) easily available, typically on any device. They are not intended for detailed analysis, but to make figures or other data representations quickly available. Whilst they will often only contain one or small number of different types of data, they can contain larger amounts of identical data such as performance scores for many retail outlets, ratings of long make/model lists etc. Quick dashboards may be generated by software systems or customised to meet a client’s specific needs.
There are an increasing number of tools that allow you to produce your own dashboards using SaaS (Software as a Service) products and a smaller number that allow you to build dashboards on your desktop with tools to publish online. The flexibility of these products varies, but they will all have limitations and the more fully featured products may have a price tag of US$10000 per year or even more. Using some of the more advanced tools will require regular use as managing different data sets and precise output is a skilled task which needs training and practice. Generally, these types of products can become valuable if you have the need to produce several dashboards and have the volume to justify an in-house expert or team. For a one-off dashboard, there are usually better routes to take in most cases.
Customised mean that the work is done for you, to your specification. You are leaving the task to the experts and you can have, within reason, exactly what you want. There are some pitfalls here though. There are web design companies with the capability to build an online dashboard, but they may not have the experience to advise on how your data can be best represented. Knowing how to handle and report marketing and research data is important to the success of your dashboard as mistakes or changes can be expensive.
The key to a quick dashboard is usability. It must be easy for the user to find the information they need – and, more importantly, quickly. The two key factors in a good quick dashboard are the size of the user base and the frequency of use by each user.
At one extreme, you may have a wide user base who will use the dashboard infrequently. In such circumstances, the dashboard should be uncomplicated, uncluttered and with no more than the key data that the user will require. At the other end of the spectrum, you may have a small user base, maybe one or two people, who will be using the dashboard regularly, maybe even several times each day. In such cases, the dashboard can convey a lot of information as the users will soon become familiar with its contents. In this respect, dashboards are not different from anything else that anyone might search for online – you only want to see what you need. Quick dashboards, therefore, may not work where you have a mix of users in terms of frequency or the amount of content they need to be able to see or work with.
The advances in the quality of the products for software generated dashboards has made this an attractive option. Products such as Dapresy, Tableau, Marketsight and many others allow you to build your own online dashboards and share them with clients or colleagues. The product you choose will determine the flexibility that you have, of course, so it’s a good idea to do some thorough testing before making a commitment.
As with any software solution, you will be limited to what the software can do. If it looks as though it will comfortably cope with your needs, this is possibly a good route to go. Some of the products come with a high price tag though, so you may need to have several projects to justify the expenditure.
A more important consideration is the skill level that is needed to produce the dashboard you want. Products such as Dapresy give you the ability to design and use your own infographics, but if you do not have someone with the design skills or the time to learn how to use such features successfully, this may add a significant amount to the cost of producing online dashboards yourself or mean that your dashboards are of a poor standard.
The advantages of a customised dashboard are more obvious – you can have exactly what you want, it’s done for you and, if you choose an experienced supplier, will have access to a team of people who can advise on how to implement your dashboard. The disadvantage of a customised dashboard is that mistakes or changes can be expensive as there is usually a lot of program code sitting underneath the dashboard which takes time to amend and re-test.
A customised dashboard will not work well if the users of the dashboard are exploring ways to have access to their data online and are unclear about what they need. Customised dashboards work best when the users of the dashboard have been fully consulted and there is a broad agreement in terms of what it contains, how it is accessed and how data is viewed and interrogated. There is often a need to show the same data in different ways or to different levels of detail for different types of user. This means that user groups have to be identified so that the dashboard is relevant to each group – what each user group sees can be controlled by login or some other mechanism. Where there is a lack of clarity about what the users want, a customised dashboard can be the wrong route.
MRDC Software has its own successful formula for developing customised dashboards – and keeping costs to an affordable level. We have developed a set of tools that make it easier for us to plug in different data handling, data calculation and data representation needs. This means that we can produce what you need at a more competitive price and reduce the cost of changes as they arise. This is not to say though you should ignore the advice in the last paragraph – planning, consensus and understanding the users’ needs are of paramount importance. A good dashboard is one that has exactly what the users need and evolves to cover changing and growing needs. Our development approach has reduced the cost of customised dashboard by more than 50% making our services highly competitive for most projects.
The aim of this blog article is to guide you to the right solution for your online dashboard. The article highlights some of the key considerations when considering a new online dashboard. If you need any help or advice, just use the ‘You Ask, We Answer’ box on our website or contact us directly.