It is surprising how often we can open a dashboard and ask ourselves what information we should be receiving from the views. In an era where fast decision-making is important, we do not always do a good job of utilizing tools in the right manner to accomplish this.
Let’s use Charlie as an example. Charlie works as a product manager for a company that sells products to consumers. Their responsibility is to maximize the profitability of the products they sell. To do this, Charlie relies on a dashboard that helps determine which products are doing well, and which are underperforming. The dashboard contains a lot of important information, is visually pleasing, and the business intelligence (BI) team has spent a lot of time ensuring that all the data is accurate and up-to-date.
Every morning, Charlie opens the dashboard and starts analyzing the various visualizations to determine which products are performing well and which are not. Unfortunately, there are many actions Charlie needs to perform before they can find and use the information that is required to action upon. Due to this, Charlie is starting to wonder if this approach really is as good as it should be, and whether Charlie should move back to making decisions based on gut feelings.
Regrettably, there are a lot of dashboards that do not fulfill their full potential or achieve the goal(s) that they were created for. Significant effort is spent on gathering as much information as possible and showing this in a visually pleasing way, but the insights provided are not focused on the questions the end-users want answered, let alone guide them to the appropriate action. So, when end-users start working with the dashboard, they find it too cumbersome or not helpful, and they decide to not use it very often.
What are actionable dashboards?
A good dashboard is one that can provide the end-user with the right information to help identify actions to be taken, within 30 seconds of opening; preferably faster. The data shown is always accurate and up-to-date and consists of the right level of detail given the responsibility at hand. These actionable dashboards are essential for employees, like Charlie, to make good data-driven decisions. They are hired to take actions to achieve their goals, and not to spend countless hours digging through data to find the right insights.
Actionable dashboards can come in many shapes and sizes. Here are a few methods to help make dashboards more actionable that you can implement with data visualization tools such as PowerBI, Tableau, Qlik, and Data Studio:
- Personalized dashboards;
- Empty list dashboards;
- Threshold monitoring; and
- Connecting applications.
Often dashboards are created from a more generic point of view. If we look at the example of Charlie, they have colleagues with the same job title but are responsible for a different subset of products. Therefore, they all require the same insights to make decisions. However, they require the insights to be about different products. Using filters to only show the data that is relevant to a specific person is already a good way to make the dashboard more actionable. But having to apply the filter every time they open the dashboard can be tedious, especially if they need to apply multiple filters to see the correct data. Luckily, most data visualization tools allow us to save views (dashboards with filters applied) and access them straight away. This is a nice method of personalizing generic dashboards to quickly show only the relevant information.
It is possible to take this a step further. Let us take the example of Charlie again. The BI team has set up an automated weekly email that takes a screenshot of the dashboard with the required filters for Charlie’s products. This shows relevant insights every week via email without Charlie having to open the dashboard itself!
Empty / exception list dashboards
An empty list dashboard is one that only shows the end-users information when they need to take action. This might not be the most visually appealing method to make a dashboard actionable, but it is very efficient. Empty list dashboards are most useful in situations where you are monitoring exceptions. For example, when a certain processes’ natural flow occurs, the dashboard will show nothing. However, when something abnormal happens, this event will be shown in a list stating what happened, where in the process it occurred, and at what time. This will allow the end-user to quickly see where they need to follow up and decide if corrective actions are needed.
This method can also be used to prioritize certain actions. Charlie’s management team has decided that it is important that all products have an accurate description. Therefore, they have asked the BI team to create an empty list dashboard for the product managers showing them a table of products they oversee. The empty list will highlight all products that do not have a description, or have received negative feedback regarding its quality from customers.
Threshold monitoring is an interesting way to follow-up on metrics surpassing a particular threshold to the up or down side. In the case that the metric is underperforming you can visually show this in a dashboard. This allows the end-user to quickly figure out which processes need following up, instead of checking all the metrics one-by-one. A fantastic way to make this even more actionable is to set up alerts that send the end-users a notice as soon as a threshold was breached (or even better, is expected to be breached). This way the end-user only needs to open a dashboard when they are alerted.
Bear in mind, you should not set up threshold monitoring on metrics that the end-user cannot properly act on, and often exceed the threshold. This will not only lead to the end-user’s inbox being spammed with emails on information they have no influence over, but will also increase the risk the user might not take action when he/she could do so.
Charlie had asked the BI team to set up a threshold for product stock so that new products could be ordered when the stock was considered dangerously low. Unfortunately, due to scarcity issues, they were not able to order more of a certain product. After receiving emails for the product to be re-ordered every day for two weeks, Charlie became quite annoyed and asked the BI team to turn off the email alerts.
Another option to make a dashboard more actionable is by configuring direct connections between a dashboard and other applications end-users are using. The goal behind this method is to enable end-users to be seamlessly redirected to an application where they can take action based on information they’ve received from the dashboard.
A good example of this is a dashboard that shows purchase orders which are delayed. Charlie can then select a delayed purchase order and is redirected to the application used to manage purchase orders. There they can follow-up on the purchase order to solve the issues causing the delay based on the information shown in the dashboard.
After the BI team implemented some of the actionable solutions previously mentioned , Charlie was quite relieved. Instead of scavenging through dashboards for valuable insights, they were delivered on a platter, allowing more time to fully focus on achieving the company’s goals. Not only did the results improve, but it also improved Charlie’s happiness, as more time was spent on tasks he felt had meaningful impact on operations.