May 3, 2011

How to build good dashboard. Part 1: Dashboards vs reports

For majority of BI developers Business Intelligence have roots in building static reports which mostly contain tables with aggregated data from SQL queries. While static reporting still remains as a significant portion of data visualization in a large organization, dashboards continue to gain popularity, especially with wide adoption of tools like QlikView which simply doesn't have any other form of data visualization except dashboards (don't tell me about reports in QlikView -- they're barely usable).

However, building a dashboard requires different approach than creating a table-based report, because the way users work with dashboards noticeably differs from the way users work with reports:
  1. Reports usually have multi-page content, dashboards are single-page (dashboards can have several sheets or tabs but usually they can be considered more or less independent as they need to answer different questions)
  2. Dashboards are intended to give answers at first sight, at the same time reports can contain a lot of detailed data that might require more thorough analysis
  3. Reports are often designed to be printed while dashboards are designed for screens; despite printing dashboards is rather common practice, I think this is done because of lack of social features in BI suites
  4. Dashboards are interactive; reports, despite often having filters and drill-down capabilities, are more static by nature
  5. Dashboards tend to be similar to applications, reports tend to look like a document.
Generally, I consider dashboards as a more progressive way of data visualization than static reports (excluding cases when basic documents such as invoices or regulatory reporting are needed) because visual representation of numerical data is better than textual one, especially when we need to catch deviations from a pattern, which is very common case in business data analysis. Many years BI vendors had been diminishing role of dashboards -- luckily in recent 2-3 years they changed their mind and greatly developed their offerings. SAP, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft -- all of them now offer dashboarding tools, but none of them is so advanced as QlikView is.

In Part 2 I will talk about planning a dashboard.