A dashboard is a tool that helps organisations track how they are performing against a given objective. It provides information about Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and metrics. Dashboards often make use of data visualizations as a means of making sense of complex data sets. They help to summarize a situation and helps users quickly draw conclusions on what the data is trying to tell them.

There are 2 popular approaches to creating dashboards. Each delivering a similar outcome to the same problem domain of delivering information from data.

Excel Dashboards

Due to Excels inherent flexibility, it has become one of the most widely used tools for creating dashboards for decades now. Although Excel has come a long way since the days of Lotus 123, its fundamental design philosophy has not changed. Excel's popularity means that users like what it does, providing a high quality platform for data storage, analysis and reporting.

Advantages of Excel Dashboards

  • Familiarity. Excel is the most widely used spreadsheet solution in the world. This means most people involved in reporting would have at least some exposure to it and therefore would be able to load and view a dashboard created on Excel.
  • Scale. Excel has come a long way from its 65,000 line limit which is now a million line limit. It is enough to solve most organisation reporting requirements.
  • Flexibility. Spreadsheets sits between a data storage solution and presentation solution, it means there are a wide range of problems it can solve.
  • Rapid deployment and prototyping. With the ability to put solutions in front of users or model solutions quickly.
  • Automation. All MS Office products have a built in scripting language VBA. It is a powerful solution to automate repetitive tasks or build entire data solutions on a high quality framework.
  • Cost. Although there is the initial cost outlay for the license for MS Office, there is a big enough eco system for what you pay for solutions for all sorts of organisations. Microsoft makes Office 365 an affordable solution with great value of money.

Disadvantages

  • Due to its file based approach, scaling the number of users starts becoming cumbersome quickly. Information collection and distribution becomes cumbersome without the help of other software. The level of complexity increases if there are multiple versions of files.
  • Cost. Although listed as an advantage, this only applies if you operate on a windows environment. Which means you need to buy a Windows license. There are open source solutions that are much more cost efficient.
  • Security. Excel implements security by password protecting files. This system is not perfectly secure as passwords can be cracked. There is also no elegant way of protecting certain information from certain users.
  • Statistical Analysis. There are better statistical packages available. Any serious statistician will not only have Excel in their toolbelt.
  • Reports. Although Excel has a wide variety of built in reports, they are limited to a fixed list. These will fulfil your reporting requirements most of the time, but sometimes you might have to "hack" the system to achieve your means.
  • Static Reports. Excel dashboards are static in nature. You will need some technical ability to drill down into the data that the graphs represent.

Web Dashboards

Web dashboards take you beyond a file based reporting and address the shortcomings of reporting to multiple users. In addition to this, the solutions are elegant and robust and the quality of output is improved. There is a blog post on how to get up and running with a web dashboard and touches on some of the some of the reasons why you would adopt this approach to reporting.

Advantages of Web Dashboards

  • Distribution. Web dashboards try to address the shortcomings of Excel when it comes to distributing dashboards to a number of users.
  • Accessibility. The technologies used in web dashboards are self contained and made according to open standards. This means it doesn't matter what operating system and browser you use. With proper implementation, all consumers of the dashboard can have the same experience.
  • Version Control. As there are only a single set of reports at any given time, there is a single version of the truth. It is what you see in the dashboard that matters and therefore no confusion of versions.
  • Security. Properly implemented security means not only access to the reports are protected, but different users can have access to a different set of reports.
  • Selection. There are a great selection of reports to choose from as there are multiple reporting libraries available. Certain libraries shine in different areas but all have similar functionality and if you know one chances are you can easily pick up another.
  • Drill down. Properly set up reports can tell a story where the user is in control and can drill down and summarize data according to where they want to go.

Disadvantages

  • Steep learning curve. Setting up a web dashboard needs some technical ability and an understanding of how the Internet works. This is not always available, especially for people who are in the front end of business most likely to know what information they want to see.
  • Developers responsible for design. Although you can go pretty far with the defaults provided in the libraries, there is a lot to understand if you want to change the reports and how make it look good.
  • Screen sizes. As more people access pages using their phones, you have to make sure the dashboards adapt to different screen sizes. Not thinking of this will mean report consumers will not have a great experience.

Dashboarding falls within a larger data analytics project and is involved in delivering information to the business in a way that is both timely and useful.