Essential Guide for Defining Business Dashboard Metrics

By Diana Ramos | May 20, 2016

An effective business dashboard is the single source for the truth for relevant information that your team or key stakeholders will want to access at any time. It should be visually clear, enabling users to easily decipher and glean key takeaways in order to make smarter business decisions. When done right, a well-designed dashboard can help to align organizational efforts, make fast, data-driven decisions, improve business performance, and increase ROI.

In this article we will take a look at what a business dashboard consists of, how to build an effective business dashboard, essential tips for defining dashboard metrics, and the features that make an ideal business dashboard software. We’ll also take a look at examples of business dashboards and the top metrics to include, by industry vertical. We’ll finish off by describing a more collaborative business dashboard in Smartsheet.

What Is a Business Dashboard?

Individuals often have very different ideas of what a business dashboard is. Business dashboards, also known as executive dashboards, were originally modeled after the dashboard of an automobile. Automobile dashboards give you a view of what is going on under the hood, through a combination of visual gauges and displays, and help to provide insight to the status of the car. Similarly a well-designed business dashboard is a visual display of KPIs, metrics, and other key data points that provide the status of a business, department, or specific process.

Within this article, when discussing business dashboards we are not referring to business intelligence dashboards. Although, business intelligence dashboards are important to help businesses consolidate and gain value out of big data, we are talking to business dashboards that provide executives and key stakeholders insight into performance as compared to strategic goals. 

Types of Business Dashboards

Typically there are two types of business dashboards: analytical and operational. Determining which type of business dashboard is right for you depends on the information you are trying to present, the audience that will benefit from the information, and the timeliness of the data. 

An analytical dashboard looks at large amounts of data over a long period of time to gain insights into trends. These dashboards are intended to help executives and analysts align strategic, long-term goals with performance management. Operational dashboards typically look at short-term, immediate objectives that are time-sensitive and intended for middle managers and the general workforce. 

It’s possible that depending on the goal of your dashboard, it may be a mix of both an analytical and operational dashboard. Either way, it is important to determine the purpose of your dashboard to ensure that the audience gets the most out of the data included.  

What to Include on Your Business Dashboard?

The intended audience for your business dashboard will help determine which metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) you should include. People often think that metrics and KPIs are one in the same. However, there are a few differences between these two types of visualization. 

What Is a Metric?

A business metric is a quantifiable measure that businesses use to track, monitor, and assess the effectiveness of business processes. The business metrics that you include on your business dashboard should be tailored to fit your audience. You wouldn’t necessarily include the same metrics for every area within a company. 

Each area of business will want to see metrics specific to their initiatives. For example, the marketing department would track campaign success, while the sales team monitors new leads and sales to date. Ensure that when you are planning your business dashboard you consider the audience and which metrics will best fit their needs. 

Additionally, providing context is essential to the effectiveness of business metrics. The benefit of tracking business metrics comes when they are compared to established benchmarks or strategic goals. This context helps business leaders to stay on track with goals, and also take action when areas are falling behind plan. 

Some examples of business metrics include:

  • Sales revenue
  • Customer loyalty and retention
  • Churn rate
  • Productivity ratios
  • Size of gross margin
  • Monthly profit and loss
  • Overhead costs
  • Variable cost percentage
  • Inventory size
  • Online conversions

What Is a KPI?

A key performance indicator (KPI) is a business metric used to evaluate the performance of specific factors and strategic goals that are crucial to the success of the organization. KPIs provide insight into how successfully an individual, team, or company is reaching their targets, and measures the performance against key business objectives.

Some examples of KPIs include:

  • Sales growth
  • Sales opportunities
  • Sales target
  • Product performance
  • Sales per sales representative
  • Marketing ROI
  • Goal completion rate
  • Cost per lead

What Is the Difference Between a KPI and a Business Metric?

KPI and business metrics are similar because they both measure how a business is doing, against strategic goals and initiatives. The difference lies with the generalness of each. A business metric looks at how a business process is measuring up against goals, while a KPI target critical areas of performance. 

Key Benefits of Business Dashboards

With the large amount of data that companies have access to, it is imperative that business leaders understand and use that data to help make critical business decisions. What’s more, the ability to quickly surface key data and glean insights is necessary to making accurate decisions. With a well-designed business dashboard, you have access to the most up-to-date data right at your fingertips. 

Here are some of the reasons why business dashboards are critical: 

  • Provides Visibility A well-built business dashboard provides visibility into the work getting done to users at all levels of an organization. Whether this is high-level project status, budget overviews, or team sales goals, the idea of visibility is the primary reason people should implement dashboards. 
  • Adds Accountability The other half to visibility is accountability. Dashboards not only provide visibility into the work that is getting done, but also into who is doing the work. For individuals, when they know that users at all levels of the organization can see the status of their work, they are more likely to do a great job.   
  • Improves Risk Identification The ability to identify risk before it becomes a major issue is critical to business leaders. A real-time business dashboard provides an easy way to surface projects or work that may not be on track, enabling managers to assess and mitigate risk early on.  
  • Increased Time Savings A common time suck for employees in various organizations is collecting information, building presentations, and rolling up data to report insights for themselves or for key stakeholders in their organization. With a business dashboard you have a more automated, real-time way to surface key insights that will save you time gathering and reporting on data.
  • Effortless KPI Tracking Whether specific to a company or individual, KPIs are key drivers of any business, at any level, and the ability to surface, check, and act upon those KPIs is critical. A business dashboard that highlights these KPIs in an organized, easy-to-digest way will help keep everyone on track.
  • Increased Team Speed and Output This is the other side to increased time savings. Studies have shown that interruptions to work result in significant loss of productivity. The idea that key data is readily available in a dashboard means that executives can access the information when they need it, without interrupting someone else’s work to get it. 

2 Key Challenges of Building Effective Business Dashboards

Now that you’ve seen the importance of business dashboards, how do you build a dashboard that your team will actually use and that your manager considers invaluable? We have identified some key challenges and best practices for developing actionable business dashboards.

Key Challenge #1: Determining Which Business Metrics to Include

One key challenge of developing a business dashboard is determining which metrics and KPIs to include. In order for your audience to find value in the dashboard, you should include metrics that matter to them. Commonly, because individuals have access to so much data, they want to include it all on a business dashboard, thinking more information is better. Unfortunately, this is where many dashboards fall short of providing key information to its audience. 

Best Practice: Think of Your Audience First

Start by thinking of your audience needs when determining which metrics to include. When designing your dashboard, be cognizant that different audiences need different dashboards.. Consider what your audience needs, how often they will look at the data, what they need to learn from the data, and what they already know about the subject matter. 

Additionally, you will want to determine the most important metric first, then identify underlying metrics. The most important metric should be prominently displayed near the top, with supporting metrics that provide a drill down into the details underneath. For example, within a sales pipeline dashboard, your most important metric could be total size of the pipeline, and should be displayed near the top. Then the data that underlies the sales pipeline, like the specific opportunities that contribute to the overall number, are displayed but are secondary to the primary metric.  

Key Challenge #2: Building a Business Dashboard People Will Use

Another key challenge of developing a business dashboard, is creating one that people will actually use. Identifying the right information to include and showing users the return on investment is important to the success of your business dashboard as an invaluable tool. 

Best Practice: Keep it Simple and Show Your Work Often

One way to do this is to keep your dashboard simple. As mentioned before, businesses have access to so much data and people often feel the need to include as much data, in as many charts and graphs, as possible. However, including too much data on your business dashboard may result in data overload for your audience. Instead, identify the key metrics to include and remove everything else. Excess information, confusing graphics, and unnecessary features make dashboards difficult to use and understand. 

Another way to ensure users find the value in your business dashboard is to share it with your audience and request their feedback. The true value of a dashboard comes from the information it provides its user. And, if the intended audience is not gaining the information they need from it, then it needs to be adjusted. Continue to improve on your layout - metrics included - and formatting of your dashboard to help users find the most value. 

6 Tips for Defining Business Dashboard Metrics

Depending on the nature of your work and the intended audience, the business metrics you include on your dashboard will vary. To help you determine which metrics to include, we have created the following list of best practices for defining business dashboard metrics: 

1. Make sure metrics are important to the business user. 

In order for dashboard users to find value in your dashboard, make sure that the metrics included are important to them. What does your audience need to know and how much detail will they need are two questions you should ask yourself when defining business dashboard metrics. Providing the most relevant metrics to your audience will make a huge difference in whether they use it.  

2. Include metrics that are actionable.

Actionable metrics are metrics that are tied to repeatable tasks and specific strategic goals. If the metrics you include on your dashboard cannot be improved then you shouldn’t be spending your effort on them. The purpose of a dashboard is to help improve key performance against specific goals. And including metrics that help in this process is essential.    

3. Metrics should be measured frequently. 

Dashboard metrics should be measured frequently to provide the user with the most up-to-date information. Part of the effectiveness of dashboards is that they provide real-time access to key insights. Determine how often your audience will need the information included on your dashboard, and make sure the data is updated accordingly.

4. Use formatting to make the metrics easy to interpret. 

One common mistake people make when building business dashboards is to include a variety of colors and different types of graphs, charts, and gauges. This makes the dashboard seem cluttered and difficult to interpret. Instead, keep your dashboard as simple as possible and use color sparingly, to help the user understand the data.     

5. Provide context by alerting users visually and then including a drill down if needed. 

To ensure your dashboard is actionable, provide a high-level metric and then include supporting metrics so that the user may identify cause. This context will help make your dashboard actionable for the user.  

6. Ensure users of every level know individual, departmental, and strategic goals.

Dashboards are important to provide insight on how performance is measuring up to strategic goals. But if the user doesn’t know what their individual, department, or company goals are, then the dashboards will be of little help to them. Make sure everyone is aware of the goals, and how the dashboard can help them achieve those goals.

Top Metrics to Include on Your Business Dashboard by Category

Now that you have an idea of how to define the metrics that will best fit your team’s needs, you can begin identifying which metrics to include. The number of metrics to include on your dashboard depends on the amount of data you absolutely need to display to get your message across. Here is a list of suggested metrics to track, by business category:

  • Sales: Revenue vs. budget, new customers, renewal rate, upsold customers, sales force productivity, time to acquire, cost to acquire, market share, customer lifetime value, wins vs. losses
  • Marketing: Qualified prospects, qualified leads, click thru rates, conversion rates, cost per lead, marketing ROI, website traffic, customer satisfaction, competitive rank, new followers 
  • Operations: Time to install, customer support tickets, time to resolve, employee retention, employee productivity, plant/equipment productivity 
  • Development: Status against deadline, status against budget, bug resolution, team productivity, recruiting efficiency 
  • Finance: Net cash vs. budget, burn rate, months of cash remaining, days receivables, days payables, bank covenant ratio 

What Features Make an Ideal Business Dashboard Software

Building an effective dashboard is as much about defining which metrics to include as it is about choosing the best tool to create it. But with all the business dashboard software out there, how do you choose the right tool for your team? We’ve compiled a list of important features that the essential business dashboard software should include. 

  • Always up-to-date: A business dashboard is most helpful when the user can be certain that the metrics and data included is the most current information. Make sure the solution either automatically updates as changes are made to underlying information, or on a regular cadence that is in line with how often your audience needs the information.  
  • In the cloud: Along with always up to date, finding a tool that is in the cloud will enable you and your team to have access to the key details from anywhere, at any time. This feature is important to stay connected with the information no matter if you are in the office, on the road, or in an important business meeting. 
  • Simple and intuitive: Ensure that your team actually uses the dashboard, by implementing a tool that is simple and intuitive for the user. Many dashboard tools can be clunky and difficult to use. Look for a tool that is easy to use for any level of technological comfort, yet powerful enough to handle large amounts of complex data. 
  • Easily customizable: Part of the benefit of using a business dashboard, is that it always displays the most important information. What is important to your team today, may not be what is important tomorrow. Make sure you find a tool that you can easily customize and update as information changes. 
  • Collaborative: The ability to share your business dashboard with key stakeholders, no matter if they are internal or external to your organization, will help to keep everyone on the same page. Find a dashboard tool that enables you to share your business dashboard to whomever may need it, at all levels of the organization.. 
  • Color capabilities: Formatting your business dashboard to be more easily consumed, is a helpful feature of business dashboard tools. Find a tool that enables you to add color where needed to highlight key data and provide a better, more organized view of the data. 
  • Mobile: No matter if you are in the office or on the road, having access to your business dashboard from anywhere will ensure you can make important decisions right when you need to. Find business dashboard software that gives users the ability to access it on a mobile device, such as a phone or tablet. 

Make Better Decisions, Faster with Smartsheet Dashboards

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The Smartsheet platform makes it easy to plan, capture, manage, and report on work from anywhere, helping your team be more effective and get more done. Report on key metrics and get real-time visibility into work as it happens with roll-up reports, dashboards, and automated workflows built to keep your team connected and informed. 

When teams have clarity into the work getting done, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Try Smartsheet for free, today.



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