RESEARCH & RESOURCES

How to Future-Proof Your Dashboards

How today's trends are paving the way for the future of business intelligence dashboard design.

By Dwight deVera, Senior Vice President, arcplan

Dashboards equal business intelligence (BI) to many people. They have been around for decades without substantial changes. Over time, we have refined the rules of dashboard design, deciding what makes dashboards most functional and efficient. Times are changing and dashboards must adapt to shifting user requirements. Mobility is encroaching on traditional dashboard usage and users are demanding self-service capabilities, less IT interference, and a greater say in what corporate data is useful and relevant. Future-proofing your dashboards is imperative if they are to continue delivering value.

Responsive Design + HTML5 = BI Anywhere

According to TechRepublic's BYOD Business Strategy Survey, 62 percent of companies either already have Bring Your Own Device allowances in place or plan to by the end of 2013. With the increasing popularity of mobile devices in daily life, workers have become accustomed to switching between gadgets according to the task at hand -- smartphones for calls and quick searches, tablets for Web browsing and e-mails on the go, and laptops for more time- and labor-intensive activities. However, switching devices and accessing BI apps is not always so effortless.

A new design concept is making it easier than ever to build and deploy BI apps that can be used on any device without the need for extra development. Responsive design allows developers to create one application for all devices, where the layout adapts to the appropriate screen size, resolution, and orientation. The ability to enable dashboards to reformat themselves to fit the end user's device is paramount for organizations whose workers utilize a variety of devices throughout the day.

The backbone of responsive design is HTML5, which builds upon previous HTML versions to provide greater Web design flexibility. It enables applications accessed through a browser to work seamlessly on any device, further eradicating any arguments for native Web apps (which require application or infrastructure customization for different device types or technologies and are cumbersome to maintain). The new functions of HTML5 allow for cost-efficient mobile BI options that can reuse existing desktop applications on mobile devices. Responsive design also saves development time -- often 30 percent or more -- because it cuts out extraneous work required to deploy dashboards and reports on mobile devices of varying sizes. Elements simply need to be resized and repositioned for various screen resolutions and orientations.

Empowering Users with Self-Service

One of the most significant consequences of traditional BI approaches and technologies is a constant backlog of BI requests, which is largely because BI requirements are changing faster than an IT-centric support model can keep up. Forrester Research analysts agree that in an ideal BI environment, business users should carry out 80 percent of all BI tasks. Gartner touted self-service as an important metric in this year's Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence. Users themselves want hands-on access to the data relevant to their role so they can create their own decision-support dashboards.

Self-service dashboards need five elements to be successful: easy-to-use interfaces, write-back, data exploration, search, and personalization. Simple, intuitive features that require little training lead to increased adoption and greater ROI. Without the ability to analyze data and take action, dashboards are just pretty pictures. Writing back commentary and supporting details and slicing and dicing data within the dashboard app make BI truly interactive. Drill-down and ad hoc capabilities can be embedded in dashboards to make them all-encompassing, go-to tools used for everyday decision-making.

The elements often left out of the self-service equation are search and personalization. Large organizations can have thousands of KPIs, reports, and dashboards throughout the company. As more users access BI, they need to be able to find the metrics that are relevant to them. Enabling a search feature is a huge leap forward in empowering users to serve themselves.

Once they find the relevant metrics, what can be done with them? The ability for users to create their own dashboards or personalize existing dashboards without assistance is becoming increasingly more important to an expanding BI audience. We can learn from social media platforms that allow users to subscribe to the content they want to see. In the same way, users should be able to subscribe to the metrics that pertain to their role without having to regularly sift through the maze of other corporate KPIs. Logistically, this can be as easy as the user selecting the KPIs they want to see on their own personal dashboard, essentially opting in to select parts of other dashboards, like a digital pinboard. Then, as metrics grow and lessen in importance over time, they can be changed out so the dashboard always remains relevant.

Ultimately, when users feel the level of control that comes with self-service (and the ability to lean on IT less), their BI tools become more critical to their daily work. Self-service enablement is helping users make the most of their BI tools and, ultimately, drives the need for collaboration.

Collaboration Helps Prioritize Information

As companies become more geographically dispersed and the mobile workforce swells, the need for knowledge sharing and collaboration -- and the potential benefit -- is magnified. Businesses are recognizing that BI needs to be pervasive, engaging, and collaborative to facilitate end-user decision-making and help their organization improve performance. These elements also facilitate information prioritization, an increasing need in companies with a large number of KPIs.

It can be hard to separate the signal from the noise in modern organizations. In the midst of hundreds and possibly thousands of KPIs, how can we leverage the "wisdom of the crowd' and prioritize content so that the most useful and relevant information is brought to the forefront? The ability to rate, comment on, and tag reports and dashboards addresses this need by showing users what their peers think about a specific piece of information. The rating, good or bad, gives users an idea of whether they would find certain information useful.

Think of user ratings on e-commerce sites such as Amazon.com. Most individuals evaluate the reliability of a product based on user ratings and comments. The same concept applied to BI can help decision-makers determine whether a certain dashboard will be useful. It is all in the name of faster, better decision-making.

Ultimately, collaborative BI tools increase the business value of BI deployments. The resulting open communication and more nimble decision-making translates to broader use and better utilization of enterprise BI.

What Comes Next?

As BI matures, we'll see mobile design concepts, the need for self-service, and collaborative and social principles define the next generation of BI dashboards.

Is a corporate app store around the corner? Will users be able to have relevant metrics delivered right to their mobile devices? Will BI systems get smarter, prioritizing data so that only urgent information is displayed? Ultimately, the future of BI dashboards will be determined by the average non-technical BI user.

Dwight deVera is senior vice president responsible for solutions delivery at arcplan, a business intelligence and planning solutions provider. His career has focused on how data is created, harmonized, presented, and analyzed. You can reach him at Dwight.deVera@arcplan.com.

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