Why great Dashboard Software doesn’t always equal great Dashboards

  • Richard Thelwell
  • November 24, 2014

Dashboard software and data visualisation tools are all the rage right now – and it’s easy to see why. Employing these tools, users have the ability to create stunning data visualisations that are proven to improve the communication of data significantly across the business. However, it’s important to understand that great dashboard software doesn’t always result in great dashboards.

Crucial both in your evaluation of dashboard software and in your ambitions to deliver great dashboards for your business is the following maxim: great dashboard software does not equal great dashboards. It is perfectly possible to take a top-of-the-range data visualisation, dashboard software, or business intelligence product, and use it to deliver a terrible dashboard.

Poor use of dashboard software

To illustrate the point, we googled ‘Qlikview screenshots’. Of the images returned on just the first page, the vast majority were very poorly designed. The screenshot below was on the first page.

dashboard software poor design
Great dashboard software used to create a poor dashboard

This service incident dashboard breaks many rules of best practice dashboard design, namely:

  • Pie charts with too many sections, making them unreadable.
  • Colours used inconsistently (the blue, for instance, means five different things on five different charts), which makes you draw misleading associations
  • No context given to numbers (this could have been given using, for instance, spark lines)
  • 3D and shading effects used poorly
  • Poor axis labelling
  • An overall ‘cluttered’ design. As a tool to give you meaningful, at-a-glance situational awareness of what’s going on in your business, this is poorly designed.

The right tools in the right hands

The point here is not to do a disservice to dashboard software tools. In the right hands, this could have been a great dashboard. Rather, the example serves to make the point that graphical functionality is not as important as thinking about how to convey information in the best way.

dashboard software right hands
In the right hands, dashboard software can be used to create great dashboards

In this example, a far better dashboard could have been created in Qlikview, or in Tableau – or, for that matter, in any other BI tool or just a copy of Excel. As such, one thing to bear in mind is that buying a data software tool does not equal getting good dashboards. And – conversely – you don’t need a dashboard software tool to get good dashboards. The dashboard functionality in virtually every other category of tool will be sufficient in terms of graphical capability, when combined with good design approach.

Do I need dashboard software?

Dashboard software tools, in summary then, are great for power-users looking to author fabulous-looking graphs, charts and dashboards. If you’re a data scientist, technical user or tech-savvy business analyst dealing with lots of different types of data every day, then a dashboard software tool is also a great option.

Finally, if you’ve already got your data in one place and simplified (de-normalised) – ideally with a data warehouse (taking away the complexity for the business user and providing one version of the truth) – then a dashboard software tool makes for an excellent additional tool to either deploy dashboards (when combined with its web server component) or to provide point data visualisations in a graphically rich way.

dashboard software data warehouse
Dashboard software can be a great tool on top of a de-normalised data warehouse

In this last use case, it is worth noting that many other BI solutions (including tier-1, Cloud and BI-as-a-service solutions) include data visualisation functionality, specifically to satisfy this requirement. While this ‘included’ data visualisation functionality will not be quite as powerful as that with a dedicated tool, it will follow the 80/20 rule and, as such, often be more than adequate.

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