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A guide to the dashboard development process

Brad Irby explains what developers need to know about the dashboard development process in order to keep users happy.

The dashboard development process is more difficult than it appears. Dashboards must be informative but not distracting,...

quick to read but allow for drill down into details, and with the appropriate information. A good rule of thumb is to have a single screen communicate the information you want to convey, and make it so the user can understand the message in 30 seconds.

Who is your target audience?

First define your target audience. A CEO will be interested in overall KPIs for the business including sales trends, expenses, net income and stock price. A sales VP would be more interested in sales trends, top five sales people, bottom five sales people, pipeline measures, etc.  If you display information irrelevant to the audience, you'll not get their attention.

No reading

Ideally, there should be no text on the dashboard aside from graph labels or headings. If something needs explanatory text, it is too complicated and needs to be revisited. If readers are interested in more information, they can drill down to more detail.

Allow drill down

Because the information presented should be just an overview, interested parties will want to drill down to details. Where appropriate, two levels of detail may be added: a superficial level made available by hovering the mouse over a key graph or figure, and a deeper level accessible by clicking. 

Obviously, this implies there is a system behind the dashboard that can provide the type of additional data your users will be looking for. Make sure to include these screens in the original project plan and budget because they can add significantly to the cost of the dashboard development process.

Don't waste space

Many dashboards put the company logo or something else uninformative in the top left corner of the screen. This is the first thing the user will look at, so it is the most important location. Assuming users remember what company they work for, there is no need for a logo. Put the most important item here -- the one thing users should see above all else.

Real time or close enough

Keeping in mind that the dashboard is meant to be a quick overview of the status of things, consider whether some of the information can be less than real time. For example, do you need to show sales up to the second, or are sales statistics from the previous night good enough? If your dashboard allows click through for details, then users can always pursue real-time data that way.

Asking these questions opens the possibility of collecting data in a nightly job and storing it in a database. This can improve system responsiveness and decrease the load on other systems that are probably more critical during the day than at night.

Next Steps

Learn some key requirements for building business intelligence dashboards

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What lessons have you learned during the dashboard development process about creating your own company dashboard?
When you need a dashboard you may not be able to find one, and when one exists, it often doesn't have the data you are looking for.

So I almost feel that dashboard development has to be an ongoing process, and customizable to each users' needs.
I think all users should have dashboards. Especially developers. Dashboards present an overall view of your work and are very useful. They can also work as a starting point for your days work. A dashboard can contain useful links to your work.
Trying to develop one to please everyone may make it more difficult to navigate than it should be.
I agree. each user should have a dashboard for his specific role.
Ideally they are made with a set of components so each user can assemble the data they think is important.  Similar to the Windows 8 interface where you can drag/drop items that interest you, and hide the ones that don't.
Thinking on this a bit more it would make more sense to develop dynamic dashboards that are easily customized. This would allow for easier updates and less impact when rolling out changes.
I agree.  "easy" is the key to it all.  Dashboards are all about easy access to general info, and providing a way of digging into the details if you want to.