Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Finding the Best Dashboard Product

Dashboards are powerful tools and are being increasingly adopted as the new face of Business Intelligence, because they can communicate complex information quickly, translating information into visually presentations, providing business users view the performance of business metrics at a glance. Cindi Howson published an article in Dashboard Insight, called Finding the Best Dashboard Product, where she gives some advice on how to find the best dashboard product for your company.

First of all, you’ll want to start with some education and scope definition, Cindi said. To understand the nuances of different dashboard products, educate yourself by attending industry webinars, reading product reviews by multiple analyst firms, and test driving demo applications. Read articles and books on best practices from both a design and business perspective. She recommends Stephen Few’s and Wayne Eckerson’s books. I wrote a book review of the Wayne Eckerson's book: Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business.

She asks if you are really looking for a dashboard, a scorecard, or a visual discovery tool; and explains the difference: A scorecard contains a list of key performance indicators (KPIs), often drillable to show root cause and interdependences. A dashboard usually does not include strategy maps, but it often includes KPIs. These KPIs can be strategic ooperational. An operational dashboard has to support near real-time data updates. Strategic and management dashboards may require less frequent updates. Visual discovery tools and dashboards are interrelated. Visual discovery tools are unique in the way they allow users to interact with data in a highly visual way.

Regarding the scope definition, she comments on BI Scorecard’s 2009 Successful BI Survey, where 57% of companies have standardized on a BI platform. Most BI suite vendors have a dashboard capability. However, for many BI platforms, the dashboard modules are newer and less robust than what you might get in a specialty product. As part of your project planning, determine under what criteria you will also look at pure-play dashboard products.

Evaluating dashboard products is similar in process to evaluating BI platforms that includes an 9-step process. Below is a summary of the 9-steps process defined by Cindi:

1. Form the dashboard evaluation team: The selection team should be comprised of a cross-section of stakeholders that include both business and IT personnel. Even if your dashboard will be implemented for a single business unit or department, be sure to include stakeholders from the central BI or IT group to understand integration points.

2. Define target users and usage scenarios for the dashboard. Understand the different authoring and consumption roles. This also may help you better determine if the dashboard will be used for management-style applications or operational.

3. Refine information requirements. This step is different from mapping data elements and data sources to build the actual dashboard, and instead, considers how the data will be viewed and interacted with. This single requirement translates into a host of technical features such as:
- Multiple fact tables or data sources to populate the dashboard;
- Semi-additive measures to aggregate inventory across product groupings but not across time periods, and;
- Automatic aggregation of individual rows of data to view totals for the year or product group.

4. Define and rank selection criteria. There are multiple methods to capturing user requirements: individual user interviews, gap analysis, and brainstorming sessions, to name a few. This step can be particularly challenging if your company is new to dashboards and doesn’t really know what is possible. This is one reason why ongoing education is important to your selection process. Developing and ranking your selection criteria is an iterative process. Cindi said that her company(BI Scorecard) offers a complementary check list for dashboard features to consider.

5. Request for information (RFI). To improve the value of an RFI, define your requirements well to avoid misunderstandings between you and the vendor. Keep the RFI short, emphasizing the critical requirements that will be decisive in your selection. Finally, complement vendor RFI responses with a heavy dose of your own ongoing research.

6. Vendor scripted demos and discussion. Prepare a consistent agenda for each vendor to follow. In the agenda, allow time for a discussion of differentiators, strategic considerations, and items you may have overlooked in your requirement ranking. Based on your priorities defined in step 4, ask demo participants to score the vendors on their ability to meet the various requirements.

7. Determine the best fit. Determine the best fit using your requirements matrix defined in step 4, score the RFI responses and demo feedback. Incorporate strategic considerations, qualitative research, and customer feedback to determine which vendor(s) most closely matches your company’s requirements.

8. Proof of concept. You may only have one or two vendors that move onto the proof of concept stage. The proof of concept stage is your chance to test the tool in your environment. It is only a test, though. At this point, it’s important to keep the evaluation team focused on the critical requirements rather than endlessly playing with the software or designing live dashboards. The proof of concept may be a throwaway: its sole purpose is to confirm that the product works as you expect it to.

9. Negotiation and procurement. You’ve done your due diligence, investigated and tested solutions, and found your ideal dashboard. Don’t let sticker shock quell your enthusiasm. Make sure you understand the vendor’s pricing and packaging early in the process. Named user pricing is more ideal for smaller deployments, whereas server-based licensing is better suited to larger deployments.

"Dashboards are a must-have component to a total BI tool portfolio. Selecting the best dashboard for your company is important, but more important is to focus on the business value that the dashboard can bring to new classes of BI users", Cindi finished.

Cindi Howson wrote a good guide with important tips on how to choose a Dashboard product that meets your purposes. She also wrote a good book called Successful Business Intelligence - Secrets to making BI a Killer App (I commented about the book in a previous post)

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