This is an Eval Central archive copy, find the original at evalacademy.com.
One of the deliverables my clients often request is a dashboard. Those clients are looking for easy-to-understand, powerful insights at a glance. They want to be able to know what they need to know when they need to know it, then make evidence-informed decisions. And that’s great! That’s exactly the mindset needed to build a culture of evaluation. When I hear “we need a dashboard,” what I hear is “we need relatively current information that we can quickly understand and trust, and we want it on one page.”
But a dashboard may or may not be the best way to fulfill that need. Here, I’ll clarify what a dashboard is, and what it isn’t, then provide a checklist you can use to decide if your program or organization needs one.
What is a dashboard?
The term “dashboard” is common in business but the understanding of that term varies. A dashboard isn’t just a short report, and it’s not just an infographic. It’s:
A visualization of important metrics – and ONLY the important metrics
Easy to understand
Live – it isn’t old data, it’s what happened yesterday, or even what has happened so far today
Updated through automated processes
Often interactive – you can filter and segment the dashboard to find exactly what you need
You can expect to see column charts, line charts, tables and minimal text in a dashboard.
A dashboard is NOT:
The only reporting product you’ll ever need
United Way of Greater Toronto prepared the above infographic to demonstrate how it works. It’s a great infographic, and it’s not a dashboard.
When are dashboards helpful?
Dashboards can be a great tool to help you keep up with the latest trends in your program. I would argue that a dashboard may be more helpful for program operations than it is for program evaluation.
For example, if your social media engagement is important for your program, seeing how many comments are generated every day may help you plan your next day’s posts. If it’s registration time, a quick glance at yesterday’s signups could help you decide whether to open up a waiting list. If your participants complete surveys after each visit, seeing last week’s results can inform how many staff you have at the front desk next week.
In a monitoring and evaluation project, it may be helpful to have a dashboard displaying the proportion of sites that have reported data, or the number of households approached to complete surveys. If you need the ability to sort and filter by site or by demographic, a dashboard might just be the best solution.
Remember that a dashboard needs an automated process to load and refresh data. That means that you need a data source and a method to continuously collect data. A true dashboard is most helpful when your program needs to know what’s happening urgently and regularly.
What do you need to build a dashboard?
The most important thing you need before building a dashboard is a very clear understanding of which metrics matter. Your team will need to come together to clarify what kinds of decisions need to be made, and which indicators support those decisions.
Each indicator will need a definition and a data source (our Performance Measures Definitions Template might be helpful). Indicators that require explanation are likely not a good fit for your dashboard; you’ll need to make sure you know your audience and how familiar they are with the content. This indicator selection process may not be easy, but it is foundational to creating a dashboard that works. Building the dashboard will likely be a significant investment of time and resources, so you’ll want to be sure it will meet your needs.
Dashboards require a continuous source of data. Data may be gathered through registration processes, surveys, financial systems, client records or other existing administrative processes. For an effective dashboard, your program will need a clear plan with responsibilities assigned to specific team members to ensure that the right data is collected at the right time.
Next, you’ll need to build it. You may already have the tools and people in your office to do this work. Power BI is commonly used to create dashboards in-house, and an external consultant may use Power BI, too. You can use Excel, but it will require more manual effort; Power BI and Tableau are better suited for handling large volumes of data and creating the high-quality visualizations dashboard users want. There are also dedicated dashboard products such as Cyfe, Klipfolio, Sisense, or Geckoboard that might meet your needs.
Hint: while we love using Canva, if that’s the platform you’re working in, you’re probably building an infographic, not a dashboard!
You’ll probably want to test out a few versions of the dashboard and make edits based on feedback from the intended audience. If your site managers don’t understand what they’re being shown, the dashboard won’t be useful. Gather their questions, ask them to find glitches, then adjust as needed. As your program changes, you may find that revisions are necessary; it might be helpful to schedule a dashboard review to coincide with strategic planning or annual reporting.
What are the alternatives to dashboards?
Does continuous data collection and digital automation sound like a bit much? You might not need a live, interactive dashboard. Depending on your information needs, your program might benefit more from concise, focused, monthly or quarterly reports.
Many healthcare, non-profit, and government programs have data that arrives slower, with decision points happening less frequently than businesses in the private sector. A lot of the dashboard literature to be found online speaks more to finance or retail companies; those companies may need to make daily modifications to their operations, while a youth after-school program may only need to reflect on data when doing annual reporting or applying for grants. Your financial team may find their QBO dashboard vital in tracking program costs, but your program planner might not have the same need for real-time data.
Now that you’ve read about dashboards, consider whether your needs would be met by a report that is:
Targeted at the information that helps you make decisions
Delivered on a monthly or quarterly basis
Easy for program staff to create with the software they already have
If you can check off most of the items below, your program might really need a dashboard. If not, consider concise, regular reporting instead.
Need for up-to-date information (daily or weekly)
Shared understanding of what metrics should be prioritized
Clear definitions of metrics
Ongoing data collection processes
Budget for a consultant, or internal capacity to build the dashboard and automate data feeds
Budget or internal capacity to troubleshoot issues
If you’re still not sure whether your program needs a dashboard, consider a conversation with one of our evaluation coaches.
A visualization of up-to-date, meaningful quantitative data. Dashboards may contain many types of data visualizations, such as line charts, column or bar charts, pie charts, or tables. Dashboards are often interactive, allowing the user to filter and segment data. They should fit on one screen, allowing rapid understanding of the information. There should be very little text; each indicator should be clear enough that it does not require a narrative explanation.
Dashboards require a continuous, automated data collection approach.
Dashboards can be used to support performance measurement, communication, operational decision-making, learning and improvement.
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