Q&A: Dashboards Help Bring BI to Consumers

Dashboards are popular in helping business users see trends and understand data, but what's ahead for this visualization tool?

Dashboards are playing a key role in the move to bring business intelligence into the hands of everyday users. As dashboard technology becomes more pervasive, what's ahead for business users?

In this interview, we talk with Shadan Malik, longtime dashboard expert and advocate, and the CEO of iDashboards, about innovations ahead, drivers behind dashboard adoption, and how important -- and difficult -- it can be to create a well-designed dashboard.

"Each dashboard is a piece of artwork," Malik says, and as useful as dashboards can be to business users, "we are still in the infancy of dashboard design."

TDWI: What sorts of innovations might we see in dashboards in the next 18 months or so? Without giving away what iDashboards is working on, what's ahead?

Shadan Malik: Innovation in dashboards will be driven on two fronts. First, there will be an increase in synergy among disparate content types such as video, maps, and unstructured data, including Web 2.0 functionality, along with the traditional analytics space. The second main driver of innovation will be the development of interesting visual experiences and engaging graphical user interfaces (GUIs).

The innovation pipeline at iDashboards includes "What-if Analysis" on live data, integration of color-coded performance measures within a calendar interface, innovative speedometer dials, and seamless integration of disparate content types.

What are the key drivers behind enterprise dashboard technology adoption?

There is an increasing awareness of and acknowledgement that we need a better way to effectively present relevant information to business users. Particularly during these difficult economic times, it's important that companies deploy affordable solutions that provide businesses visibility and accurate insight into mission-critical data.

Dashboards are designed to provide the insight needed for quick and informed decision-making. They also serve as an effective feedback mechanism to convey individual and group performance at all levels within the organization.

Where do dashboards fit in terms of the reporting paradigm? You've said that we're in a transition period, and eventually reports and dashboards will be one and the same.

Yes, it's only a matter of time before the differences between dashboards and reports dissolve. Because dashboards are still emerging, the difference between the two is still relevant. It's important to draw a distinction between the traditional ways of conveying information through reports versus the new dashboard paradigm.

However, in the not-too-distant future, I predict that everyone will be consuming information more graphically, with details accessible through relevant drill-down capabilities -- that is, through dashboards. Reports and spreadsheets overloaded with data will become an oddity.

Let's talk about dashboard design. What sorts of information should be displayed on a dashboard? How much is too much? How granular should the information be?

From what I have seen of real-life dashboard implementations, we are still in the infancy of dashboard design. The information displayed on a dashboard has to be balanced between the organizational-level objectives of the dashboard and the dashboard's ability to serve a specific user's information needs. At the individual level, I would resist a mandate of what is too much or too granular -- as individuals, we all have very different thresholds for consuming details.

How do you design the user experience? Are there design rules? Will dashboard design become more important as it gradually did for Web pages?

Each dashboard is a piece of artwork. For the most part, it takes a well-trained artist to create a truly well-designed final piece. Today, most dashboard implementations are done by data analysts and IT professionals rather than anyone with design training. This results in dashboards that leave much to be desired in their effectiveness as visual communication.

The analogy to Web pages is an apt one. Initially, savvy IT individuals created Web pages. Eventually, trained designers embraced it as part of their profession. The resulting difference in the quality of Web pages is obvious when you look over the last 10 years. The field of dashboard design will go through a similar learning curve.

How do you use storyboarding in dashboard design?

I've borrowed the term storyboarding from multimedia project design and applied it to dashboard design and development. I view it as the art and science behind an effective dashboard design. Unlike passive artwork, which you see and admire but don't interact with, dashboard design must offer an engaging user experience, and must give the user many interaction choices. Even a typical Web page is limited in scope compared to the possibilities within an effective dashboard.

Not only does a dashboard design require aesthetics, selection of appropriate colors and contrasts, and applicable charts and graphical elements, it requires building an interactive user experience. That includes drill-down paths and visual interactions as part of the dashboard elements.

Those design considerations are also driven by user credentials, data access privileges, and information hierarchy. For example, a sales VP can drill down to see sales managers' metrics. Conversely, sales managers can drill down to see their direct reports only. All of these criteria must be captured within the storyboarding process.

Your company has some good examples of consumer dashboards, such as iDashboards' creation this spring to track college basketball games during "March Madness." How do you see consumer-facing dashboards eventually coming to the masses?

We see applications for BI dashboards in every facet of data consumption. Consumers will be exposed to dashboards in multiple ways, including dashboard applications in the software they already use for their daily work, dashboards for popular events such as sports or elections, and even dashboards for online consumer applications such as banking, bill-paying, and more.

Here's a good consumer example: We developed dashboards to track game results for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, then made them available to Olympic fans in over 20 countries (see http://live.idashboards.com/beijing2008/?guestuser=guest).

Another example is a 2008 presidential election dashboard (see http://live.idashboards.com/president2008/?guestuser=fun).

Most recently, the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament dashboard won a place in "March Madness" (see http://live.idashboards.com/basketball/?guestuser=hoopsfan).

iDashboards offers customized dashboard solutions to customers, correct?

Yes, iDashboards is a best-of-breed dashboard software that does not require a stack of complex technologies, but still provides a secure and sophisticated platform to deploy enterprise dashboards affordably. Most of our customers receive a customized dashboard solution within a week, along with significant cost savings. Rather than simply extending a legacy-reporting platform by adding a collection of new charting options, we designed the iDashboards software platform from the ground up to deliver a unique user experience of dashboard visualization. Furthermore, we created the patented concept of "visual intelligence," the rich collection of data viewing capabilities.

Our software also sends real-time alerts when thresholds are met or exceeded, which ensures users are informed quickly of any outliers they need to address. Offering real-time information supports the needs of businesses to make pivotal decisions, accurately.

iDashboards is an integral part of the growing consumer adoption. For example, tens of thousands of users are exposed to iDashboards technology every day through our OEM program, where software vendors have integrated iDashboards within their applications.

Must Read Articles