This is the first article in a series on data dashboards.
The invention of the iPhone kicked off one of the great advances in technology – the rise of design. Smartphones were once horribly complicated interfaces that only engineers could use. The first iPhone could be unlocked and operated by a toddler, and its interface has barely changed in seven years.
Nowadays good design is almost mandatory for modern software designed to run over the internet and operated through a browser. One of the design staples is the dashboard, a powerful tool that boils down the essence of the program to a couple of key charts, lists and numbers.
What is a Dashboard?
A dashboard is a summary page of the key metrics and performance indicators within that program. Dashboards are often used as the home screen for online business software as it gives the user a snapshot of the most important data.
The goal of the dashboard is to make the program understandable to the person using it, says Garry Dukes from Ocius Digital, a technology consultancy. “You shouldn’t have to explain what each thing is.”
Dashboards are extremely effective for programs with a lot of data, such as accounting programs. An accounting program can hold thousands of transactions and dozens of reports, so it’s extremely useful to have the most relevant and regularly updated information shown on the home screen.
This can include the total amount of money in the bank (account balances), lists of the money going into and out of the business (invoices payable and receivable), a chart showing how well you manage the process of collecting and spending cash (your cash flow), a graph showing the number of sales targeted for the month versus sales made, and a list of key spending accounts so you can monitor for blow-outs and keep costs under control.
Below are examples from leading online accounting software including Intuit QuickBooks, MYOB Essentials, Reckon One, Saasu and Xero. Click to see in full size.
Dashboards are receiving more attention from software companies, all of which updated the their designs in 2014. Even slight changes to bolder colours with more striking contracts can improve usability.
Some have opened up about their design process and the importance of user experience. Design thinking is reinventing business software. The theory is simple – users will use more features and receive greater business benefit from a well-designed program.
The more visually appealing a program is from the get-go the more a user will use it. This is particularly important for accountants or bookkeepers training clients on how to use their accounting program effectively.
“If you’re demonstrating a program to a client you can show them the home screen, see the key information and jump in and examine the cash flow,” Dukes says.
Dashboards are moving from fixed screens to customisable templates. Reckon One is the first to let you choose the types of information you can display from a library of widgets. Others are promising a similar approach and going even further towards business intelligence, where a dashboard might show your business’ performance compared to industry benchmarks.
Are there Customisable Dashboards for Accounting?
The dashboards in accounting programs tend to be fairly basic and for the time being most aren’t customisable. A number of dashboard programs are available for business owners wanting to set a more detailed set of key performance indicators (KPIs) or reporting metrics, or perhaps use several dashboards for different roles in a business.
Dashboards such as Crunchboards, Fathom and Spotlight Dashboards connect to your accounting software and turn your financial data into business intelligence reports. They have pre-designed graph, image and number templates that can create scorecards, management reports, sales dashboards, financial and non-financial KPIs, and so on.
These dashboard programs perform several types of analysis such as KPI, profitability analysis, cash flow, trends and printable PDF reports for board meetings.
Here are some examples.
Are there Dashboards for Multiple Apps?
There are also standalone dashboards which can pull information from a number of programs. These multi-source dashboards are really useful for business owners or managers who want a snapshot of the key metrics for running operations from a variety of applications.
For example, a retailer’s dashboard might include a list showing stock levels of the five best-selling products from their inventory program, today’s sales vs average number of sales from their point-of-sale system and accounts-payable invoices waiting to be paid from their accounting program.
This is especially true of smaller businesses that use a collection of programs in conjunction with their accounting program rather than a single enterprise resource planning (ERP) suite.
Dashboards are not just for business owners. Managers can use them to manage jobs in a professional services business or for sales to monitor lead conversions.
Examples of multi-source dashboards include Ducksboard, Geckoboard and 9Spokes.
How Do You Choose a Dashboard?
Whether you’re looking for a single-source or multi-source dashboard program, there are certain aspects worth considering, Dukes says.
- Connections. Online programs can connect to each other so they can pass data either in one or both directions. This eliminates the hassle of exporting and importing data manually. Although this is not a large task it is a huge factor in why programs are often abandoned due to lack of use. Automatically updating information is critical, so make sure the dashboard connects directly to the application/s you need it to. You will often see the term API, or application programming interface, referred to in this context. It is just the name for the connectors in each program that determine the type of data that can pass between the two.
- Frequency. Sometimes two online programs will say they connect automatically through an API but they might only update the data once a day. That’s less useful than a connection that refreshes the data every hour or (best case) in real time. Of course, you might not need your invoices payable updated in real time, so evaluate the frequency based on your needs.
- Visual appeal. The dashboard has to look good. This is not just for aesthetic reasons. You are more likely to miss something if an important metric is not suitably visible or highlighted.
- Drill down. Dashboards should give you access to the data behind a graph or number and do it quickly, Dukes says. “You should be able to click on a bank account graph and examine the numbers behind the curve.”
So that’s a basic introduction to dashboards. Next week we will look at how to set up a dashboard effectively.