Archive for May, 2008

Dashboard Eye Candy

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

Yes, I know that good information visualization practice and dashboard design calls for effective use of screen real estate with clear and simple devices such as sparklines and bullet graphs. Easy to read and interpret, these charts, combined with a monotone color scheme (after all, we have to keep the mind on the data and use color sparingly to call attention to the errant metric and the wayward KPI!), have become a “best practice” design for data-heavy business dashboards.

Take a look at this sparkline dashboard (designed by Stephen Few and featured in his book Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data and implemented by Andreas Lipphardt of BonaVista – see “An Excel-based IT Dashboard) and you’ll recognize “the look”.

And see also the sales dashboard (also designed by Few and discussed in his book – this version implemented by Robert Allison using SAS/GRAPH).

Excel Dashboard for CIO

Stephen Few Sales Dashboard by Robert Allison

Yes, these information dashboards are packed with great data visualizations and make effective use of the dashboard layout. Gratituitous graphics are minimized. Utility and user understanding of the meaning of the information is maximized.

But, heck, don’t you ever get tired of the flatness and just sometimes want to ogle a shiny, big-ass 3D gauge like this one?

Dashboard Gauge by XtraGauge

In the mood for some more in this vein? Here are some more digital instrumentation/gauge style dashboard interface elements:

Dashboard Gauge by Dundas

Gauge by Dundas

Assortment of dot net Dashboard Gauges (see more dashboard dials, gauges and charts for .Net from Perpetuumsoft)

The question is when to choose what level of eye candy for dashboards. Is it always “wrong” to go with the shiny gizmo? How about when the project sponsor says “Make the gauges bigger”?

Is the answer to take a blended approach as Dundas does in this HR metrics dashboard? Does this strike the proper balance?

dundas dashboard for HR metrics

Update: The comments posted regarding balancing eye candy with information visualization best practices set me off on a search for a product that I saw a while back. Click on the more link to see what I found:


So Where are the Excel 2007 Dashboards?

Friday, May 23rd, 2008

Are less dashboards being built using Excel 2007 than I thought? The recent post about customizing the Ribbon navigation panel elements for Excel 2007 dashboards brought out a couple of comments from Dashboard Spy readers that basically said that Office 2007 upgrades were not yet in sight for them. Yes, it’s true that there’s a buzz out there about the dashboard-friendy functionality found in the Excel 2007 version and that we finally have a good Excel dashboarding book (see Excel 2007 Dashboards & Reports For Dummies), but Office 2007 is not yet commonly available in many enterprises.

I thought I’d look at the adoption rate of Excel 2007 in this post.

A great “in-the-trenches” look at whether people are using Excel 2007 yet comes from Charley Kyd of in his Excel 2007 Market Share survey. Since the release of Office 2007, he has been running a poll of what version Excel his site visitors have been using.

BTW, if you want an easy, low cost way to produce magazine-quality Excel dashboards, take a look at Charley’s Plug and Play Excel Dashboard Templates. Just point them to your data, and you have some great looking excel dashboard reports.

Here’s a screengrab from his site:

Excel version survey results

Click on the more link for more on this Excel version survey.

Customizing Ribbon Buttons for Excel 2007 Dashboards

Thursday, May 22nd, 2008

Building a dashboard with Excel 2007? Don’t forget to make use of the Excel 2007 ribbon. You can add your own custom tabs and buttons to the Excel ribbon using XML or RibbonX code. Thanks to Mike Alexander, author of Excel 2007 Dashboards & Reports For Dummies, there is a freeware Custom Button Builder for Excel 2007.

As this Excel 2007 Custom Ribbon Buttons video tutorial shows, the utility asks you to fill out a table of values and it provides a sample worksheet with your custom tabs/buttons (complete with icons and code that can call your macros).

Let’s have a look at some screenshots I captured from the video:

You can select from the billions of icons on your machine:

Excel 2007 Ribbon Icons - Datapig utility

Click to see more of this Excel 2007 Ribbon Customization utility:


First Spreadsheet Dashboard

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

In the past, we’ve noted that the first computer-based business dashboard was generated by a computer named LEO. It printed out a dashboard report showing payroll statistics for the Lyons Tea Shops in the 1940s. The computer was room-sized and contained over 3000 vacuum tubes. For the full story, see the book A Computer Called Leo.

Today, we look at the question, “What was the first business dashboard for the personal computer?”. Well thanks go to veteran dashboarder, Charley Kyd, for writing me with his story of his Lotus 1-2-3 dashboard reports from 1984. Believed to be the earliest PC-based spreadsheet dashboards, they are still impactful today.

According to Charley:

I’m sure that my Lotus mini-graph reports were the first dashboard reports ever created for spreadsheets. And because there was very little management software available back then, they probably were the first dashboard reports created for personal computers.

To put this thought in its proper perspective, that distinction plus $1.95 might buy me a cup of coffee today.

Let’s take a look at a couple of screenshots. These come from Charley Kyd’s first book Financial Modeling Using Lotus 1-2-3 (1986, Sybex).

First PC Spreadsheet Dashboard

Click the “see more” link to view more screenshots of this dashboard:

Dashboard or Scorecard

Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

A couple of Dashboard Spy readers and I were going back and forth about some of the various terms used to describe these dashboardy things that we do. There are plenty of terms used interchangeably: Dashboard Reports, Executive Dashboards, Scorecards, Balanced Scorecards, Enterprise Dashboards, Digital Dashboards, Business Cockpits, Dashboard Widgets, Desktop Dashboards, Information Dashboard, Performance Dashboard, KPI Summary, etc.

Whatever you call these things, the common thread is that they are all visually-based presentations of business metrics used to inform management decisions.

The question is at what point do the differences matter enough that we need to differentiate the language (and the dashboards themselves). The case we argued about specifically had to do with the difference between a Dashboard and a Scorecard.

Here are some references that expound upon the Dashboard vs. Scorecard definition issue:

Scorecards and Dashboards – What’s the Difference? (An article by Serence Inc.):

Scorecards & Dashboards translate strategy into accountability and measure progress. Maybe these systems will be referred to as scoreboards?

Historically, software scorecards were a direct result and visual representation of the theoretical balanced scorecard approach to business strategy developed at Harvard Business School. Software scorecards are also distinguished by the regimented top down organizational planning process defined by the theory that underlies the scorecard interface. This process aims to identify the few key performance metrics that best indicate an organization’s progress towards stated strategic goals, and then cascades down through the organization to all supporting and contributing metrics, groups, and individuals. Software scorecards emphasize individual accountability for contributing to and achieving strategic goals.

In contrast, software dashboards evolved as the information systems equivalent of the automotive dashboard that displayed real-time changes to tactical information often displayed as charts, graphs, and gauges. Software dashboards also offered the ability to drill through top-level information into supporting data. As they evolved, software dashboards became increasingly common as the user interface for individual applications such as ERP systems and Web analytics packages.

What Do You Need to See – Dashboards vs. Scorecards (Article by Data Management Group):

The question as to the difference between dashboards and scorecards comes up constantly. This is due to many companies now using the terms interchangeably. Using the rule of thumb that for every person who asks a question there are at least ten more that also want an answer, a quick discussion here might be in line. Some comments will also be discussed surrounding what the role of each is, suggestions for each type of system, and which might be more relevant to your business (or business unit).

The names ‘dashboard’ and ‘scorecard’ are well chosen with respect to their real-world usage. A scorecard being part of a broader corporate methodology or management discipline and is a report card of how a given person, business unit or entity performed with respect to certain goals over a given time period. A dashboard being a set of indicators about the state of a process, piece of equipment, or business metric such as cash on hand or YTD sales at a specific point in time.

Here is a screenshot of the Data Management post with more elaboration of what makes a dashboard versus a scorecard:

Dashboard Versus Scorecard

Let’s go beyond the semantics and now look briefly at the Balanced Scorecard methodology.

Click on the more link to see the rest of this post if you are on the front page of the Dashboards By Example blog:


Management Transparency through Dashboards

Friday, May 9th, 2008

Enterprise Dashboard Topic: Xcelsius Dashboard Case Study from The Dashboard Spy

Unless we’re careful, we dashboard designers may fall into the trap of becoming ivory tower theorists. Isolated from the nitty gritty of real life, we would be unable to tie our dashboards to the real wants and needs of our users. How so? Well, in designing a dashboard, we explore several fields that rely heavily on theory and fundamentals: usability, cognitive behavior, information visualization, data graphing and representation, graphic design, etc. In all these fields, we avidly read the rules and practices espoused by the core group of experts (often opinionated, always persuasive!) and sometimes risk going overboard and putting theory before the flexibility required by actual users. It’s easy to think that we (or the gurus) know best, when, in actuality, it’s the users (yes – contentious statement).

To turn this thought into a case study with a real, implemented business dashboard, let’s consider the situation today regarding rising gasoline prices. Sure, it’s hurting all of us, but those people in states with higher gas taxes really feel the pinch. Take a look at this great listing of state sales, gas, cig and alc. taxes. The gas taxes are used in various ways. In fact, they typically go to a multitude of different state agencies to fund projects of all sorts.

It’s in times of rising prices (and short tempers) that tax payers demand visibility into how their tax dollars are being spent. Management transparency becomes an absolute requirement by the public. Of course, the web and the rise of management dashboards fit this need very well.

The Washington State Transportation Improvement Board (TIB) has taken a major step in terms of management transparency by putting onto their public website, an extensive performance dashboard. The TIB GMAP Dashboard was launched to the public on May 1, 2008 and provides visiblity of KPIs and metrics for the projects funded by their share of the tax revenue.

Getting back to the theme of real user needs versus ivory-tower thinking, this dashboard application shows the balance that can be struck between design principals and real-world contraints. It’s not the most “correct” BI dashboard implementation out there, but it will certainly be a hit with the users. The choice of Xcelsius and its flash-based interactivity has some nice glitz to it. While some charts and graphs may be better designed from an information visualization point of view, the level of utility is high. Check out the screenshot below of the use of sparklines to show historic trends – nice!.

After 4 years of internal use, user feedback and constant iteration, the team had confidence that the public would find not only great utility in the data, but a satisfaction from seeing how their tax dollars were being put to use. It took 4 years of evolution and listening to constituents that got the TIB to their current level of transparency. Good job!

Here is a screenshot of the Xcelsius dashboard:

Performance Dashboard for Transportation Project Management

If you are on the front page of the Dashboards By Example blog, be sure to click on the following “more” link to see the rest of this post as there will be a great video of this flash-based dashboard as well as more screenshots and business case documentation.


The Square Pie Chart

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Do you have pie chart graphs on your business dashboard? Everyone loves the pie chart. Business users love to casually use (and abuse) it as it’s the first graph that comes to mind. And as for you data visualization experts out there among the Dashboard Spy readers, admit it – you just love to hate the pie chart because of it’s constant misuse. (See Don’t Eat the Dashboard Pie Chart)

We’ve looked at the history of the pie chart, so now let’s ask: “What is the future of the pie chart?”. Of course, it will always continue as the defacto first choice among the information visualization newbies, but can it evolve into a variant worthy of advanced infovis use?

Well, there are advanced uses of the pie chart as demonstrated in the article by Jon Peltier, Pie of Pie Charts and other Pie Chart Tricks.

But how about a more dramatic evolution of the pie chart? How about a square pie chart? In his post, Pixels are the New Pies, Anil Dash (how’s that for a name for a Dashboard Spy?!), points out a couple of square variations of the pie chart.

Here is one from wired mag that shows a gadget spending trend chart.

Here’s what I mean by a square dashboard. Look at the upper left corner of this image:

Square Pie Chart style infovis graph used by Wired Magazine

And here is a thumbnail of another square pie chart as mentioned in the Anil Dash post:

Square Pie Charts - a new infographic trend

Updated: Here are some additional examples of square pie charts: Click on the “More” link if you are on the front page of “Dashboards By Example”.


The Future of Excel Dashboards

Monday, May 5th, 2008

In past Dashboard Spy posts, we’ve discussed the growing importance of Microsoft Excel as a serious business intelligence dashboard tool. Because of its ubiquity and role as lingua franca between business units in the enterprise, the recent expansion of Excel’s dashboard capabilities has an importance to us BI dashboarders for years to come. Of particular interest are things like the enhanced conditional formatting and dashboard status icons / indicators.

Add to the mix some cutting edge data visualization tools such as the sparkline charting products (Microcharts 3) from BonaVista Systems and incredibly detailed instructional books such as Excel 2007 Dashboards and Reports for Dummies, and you have the makings of a business power user revolution in visual business intelligence (e.g. dashboards).

The recent announcement by BonaVista Systems of an Excel Dashboard contest brought several thoughts to mind. First, of course, was the anticipation that this event will allow us to see what fellow dashboarders are currently doing with Excel in terms of dashboarding. Second was an interesting thought spurred by the first prize in the contest – an Apple iPhone. They show a small thumbnail of an iPhone mocked up with a Microcharts powered sparkline dashboard. That was neat (and it gave me inspiration to create a larger version of the iphone business dashboard shown below), but what really made me think was the caption “more information per pixel”. I thought that the phrase sums up neatly the sparkline approach to data visualization.

Let’s take a look at the iPhone dashboard I mocked up and then I’ll share some details of the Excel dashboarding competition. It’s still open, so I encourage all Dashboard Spy readers to enter.

Is this the future of Excel dashboards?

iPhone Business Dashboard Excel

Before we look at the details of the Excel Dashboard contest, have a look at some of the Microchart graphics that you can use in your dashboard:

microchart graphs for excel dashboard

Click on the more link to learn about the excel dashboard competition:


Subway System Operational Management Dashboard

Friday, May 2nd, 2008

KPI Dashboards:

“Actual KPIs and metrics from real business cases! Real operations dashboards – That’s what we want examples of.” says a long-time reader of The Dashboard Spy who reminded me that I’ve gotten away from showing the nitty gritty details of business intelligence dashboards. She said that it’s all well and good that I’ve been pointing out design fundamentals and implementation best practices, but she misses the hard core “let’s see what other dashboard teams are working on” approach of the old Dashboard Spy days.

OK, I get the message. Let’s focus on more actual dashboards. Today we look at how the managers of the Singapore Subway system monitor the operational status of their trains, stations and other assets. How’s that for a specific business area of focus for us dashboard fans?

First, let’s take a quick journey to Singapore for a quick getaway before buckling down to some business intelligence.

The Mass Rapid Transit system (or MRT) of Singapore is currently composed of a total of 64 operating stations that serve a daily ridership of over 1.5 million people. There are plans for a large expansion project. Among rail buffs, the Singapore MRT system is of note in several areas. The stations are famous for being absolutely spotless. There are multiple train lines of the system, with the northeast line being completely underground using driverless trains. The platforms are sealed off from the tracks with safety screen doors to prevent access to the tracks and ensure climate control. The MRT is complemented by the LRT (Light Rail Transit). The LRT is close in spirit to people mover systems found in airports.

OK. Back to BI, metrics, KPIs and dashboard reports! Now let’s take a look at how they monitor their operations.

Thanks to the good graces of a Dashboard Spy located at the headquarters of Elixir Technology in Singapore, we have the following dashboard screenshots of the operations monitoring dashboard project. The dashboards are powered by Elixir Repertoire – a product for Dashboarding, Reporting, and Data ETL and Scheduling.

Here is the Command and Control Dashboard.

singapore MRT Command Control Dashboard

Click on the “more” link for more dashboard screenshots from this system as well additional commentary.