April 23, 2020 Office 365

Connecting the Dots: Why Dashboarding Your Data Can Tell a Compelling Story

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Data is an important part of any business, we can all agree on that. It can tell us so many things, like: Do you have enough capacity to meet your client’s needs? Will you make your bottom line? Are your clients ready to adopt new products? These are common questions asked by most any business, and data provides the answers.

Of course, in answering these questions, sometimes the data becomes overwhelming. Sometimes this means drowning in a sea of spreadsheets while you try to sort out which specific data points and connections will create a compelling narrative. Not to mention that if you’re collecting said data, it’s likely because you’re planning on presenting it to an audience (like your colleagues, or industry peers, or a client) and you’re hoping it all makes sense to another person.

This leads us to a key point: most people don’t have the attention span for a thick 20-page packet of data. Enter dashboards, with which you can use curated data to paint a clear picture for your intended audience.

What are dashboards?

In laymen’s terms, dashboards are a visual mechanism for organizing and presenting quantitative information in such a way that it tells a clear, concrete story, ideally bringing your message to life.

Luckily, products such as Microsoft’s Power BI make thorough, comprehensive dashboards an achievable solution for pretty much any business—and here at SUCCESS we’re assembling some tutorials to demystify the entire dashboarding process. What I’d like to focus on today, though, is some of the behind-the-scenes processes that can help set you up for dashboard success.

As a result, I’ve noticed there are a few key questions you can ask yourself before you ever get your hands on Power BI:

  • Goal/Purpose: What is the message you want to convey? Why are you conveying this message?
  • Audience: Who will you be presenting this message to?
  • Information/Criticism: What data are you using to support this message?
  • Process: How is this data being collected and in what format?

What is the message you want to convey? Why are you conveying this message?

Countless times I’m asked, “Hey, we want a dashboard to tell us ‘X’, using ‘Y’ data.” As I get started, I find that ‘Y’ data does not have any correlation to the ‘X’ message, or may leave gaps that don’t tell the full story. This is like reading a Shakespearean play missing half its pages—the language was already confusing enough to decipher, but now we’ve completely lost the plot.

So instead of starting from your actual data, consider working backward from this question: what is the story I want to tell, to whom, and why? Then determine which data is essential to a cohesive narrative.

A lot of times, though, the message is something overly generic, like “I want to tell the company, using our data from finance, how we are doing.”

That’s a pretty broad question and could leave you sifting through a ton of data, feeling every bit might be important—finance reports, sum-of-all-income, product prices, etc.

The thing is, the more variables you put in, the more convoluted the story becomes.

Identifying the specific message will help to dial in on data that is important. Perhaps the message is, “I want a detailed look at the amount of monetary growth this past year. How does that correlate to the number of new clients we have?” That’s one visualization which deals with just two data points: The number of clients you’ve acquired this year, and the amount of extra income your company has received.

It won’t always be a home run, but an iterative process. If you can describe the dashboard in two sentences or less, you’re on the right track.

Next, determine: “WHY is this message important?” Understanding the intent behind your story will help you weed out the metrics that serve no clear foundation for your message.

Who will you be explaining this message to?

Who is your audience? Think about your own company. It’s made up of multiple teams and unique workers, all with specific and sometimes distinct expertise. This means different work-specific terminology, culture, and different data. What might grab finance’s attention may very much differ from operations.

If your answer is IT operations, you may use a different language than you would a client who owns a flower shop. The data might be similar but displayed differently. (Note: I suggest finding data that is easily translatable.) You may have a bar graph that, for an IT audience, talks about the average amount of teraflops sold per project, but for another audience it’s the average amount of memory sold per project.

Next, find out how your audience digests information. Bar graphs and pie charts are all fantastic, but perhaps this particular industry or client digests it better in a table form. Or maybe they need real life examples to correlate with the terms, in which case an infographic might have a better impact.

What data are you using to support this message?

You’ve found your specific message. You know the target audience. Now it’s time to actually deal with the data. There’s so much out there—where do you even start? Well, this is where your message should direct you. Use it to identify the first couple of metrics that will help tell that story. From there, ask “Where can I find those metrics?”

Using the example earlier, “I want a detailed look at the amount of monetary growth this past year. How does that correlate to the number of new clients we have?” There were two metrics “number of new clients” and “additional income.” You may find a report that has a list of projects and clients, and a list of projects with their income. A commonality between these two lists is the “project names.” This means that the “project names” can be your magic decoder ring between reports. Furthering our example, you may also have a list of each project with the amount of time and labor you need to complete. This could give you the size of the project.

By taking the names of new clients you can find trends from multiple data points:

  1. Find the project title associated with each client from the first report
  2. Use the project title in the second report to see how much income you received
  3. Follow up with how big the project is on the third report.

The conclusion? Your company only had a few new clients, but each brought in a HUGE project, giving you monetary growth. From there you could use different graphs to compare monetary growth with new clients, and then have a separate visualization that explains the size of projects.  Know that the first time you put together a dashboard it may not tell the whole story. This means you may need to tweak the message, or you may need to find different metrics, or maybe the audience isn’t right, or all the above. Keep in mind, it’s iterative. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

How is this data being collected, and in what format?

This question is for future-proofing the dashboard. It’s a good one to ask once, to familiarize yourself with how the data is collected, and then you are  presented with two opportunities: one is to identify gaps in the data. Perhaps the way the data is being collected is a worker counting product, tallying on a piece of paper, and manually entering numbers. Is there a better way to do that? Are there programs that could do this, tracking and tallying new products each time they’re scanned? Maybe your remote services group is putting down number of hours worked on a ticket in the “Summary” box, when the CRM has a spot to put in a start and end time. This would be a gap in your story, and might inspire you to create new processes to better track and evaluate data.

The second opportunity is my favorite: Is there automation possible? Grabbing the data, is it going into a program and exporting to an Excel spreadsheet? Using programs such as Power Automate, you could have your computer do that for you. If your dashboard is ongoing and needs updated data weekly, Power BI may be your solution, with Power Automate feeding the data. With this opportunity you can future-proof your dashboard, so it moves from a snapshot in time, to a living dashboard that will always give you the most accurate, updated snapshot of your “current” time. It also will save you time because you won’t need to constantly email a new report.

Conclusion

As you can see, creating a dashboard involves more than just learning the software programs. Start with your message, find the data to support it, and never forget your audience. In taking this approach, you’ll find a stronger summary of your data, and be able to put it in a much more easily digestible format. If you have further questions or would like to learn more about Power BI, contact SUCCESS Computer Consulting at 763.593.3000