How to Build a Dashboard

Jan 16, 20193 min read

Everybody wants a quick, easy place to check those all-important metrics, and dashboards provide organizations with a single, easily accessible location for data. This guide will help take you through prerequisite checks before guiding you through considerations in picking a tool to build your dashboard.

Are you ready for a dashboard?

A good dashboard is usually

  • A visualization of key performance indicators (KPIs)
  • Updated frequently
  • Interactive
  • Available online (even if only on an internal network)

You need data to feed a dashboard. In particular, you need data that is both timely and relevant. Before building a dashboard, identify the key performance indicators (KPIs - business-speak for metrics) that you want to include. This article from the NonProfit Quarterly gives an excellent overview of choosing the right metrics for a dashboard. Also invest in your data system so that your KPI data is updated frequently and automatically. Ideally, the dashboarding app will be able to connect directly to your data source(s) (databases, spreadsheets, or similar) to pull in fresh data. If data updates are not automated, creating a dashboard is also creating a lot of maintenance work.

Before building your dashboard, you should also have a clear idea of its audience and their goals for using it. It can be tempting to create a tool that tries to meet everyone's needs, from program staff to management to funders. This can lead to overly complicated dashboards that no one is able to use well. Instead, start with a narrow focus on one audience and one use case. You can always add more features later.

Comparisons of Dashboarding Software

The first question you should ask when picking dashboarding software is how much time investment you want to make. Dedicated apps like Tableau, PowerBI, and Qlik are intuitive and easy to use (especially with some training)

Tableau sets the industry standard for beautiful, interactive data visualization. It's one of the more expensive options, but it is widely popular and has some great data visualization features. Qlik is similar in capabilities (with more analytics and modeling built in), but it isn't as popular and it can be difficult to find people already trained on it. Microsoft PowerBI is often considered the easiest to pick up (especially for experts on other Microsoft products), and is the cheapest of the three, but it has limited capabilities, especially in the types of data sources it can connect to.

If you're looking for an open source, free and nearly infinitely flexible option, R is the tool for you. There is a learning curve, but if you have staff that are already using R regularly, using it for reporting can make sense. For static reports (e.g., PDFs or Word documents), the knitr R package is both powerful and relatively user friendly. Building interactivity into R (most commonly with the shiny package) takes more work.

External Resources

  • Models and Components of a Great Nonprofit Dashboard, by Hilda H. Polanco and Sarah Walker, is an excellent (relatively short) article on picking the right metrics.
  • Stephen Few's work, particularly the book Information Dashboard Design, provides helpful design advice for creating simple, beautiful, and functional dashboards. Please be aware this is a paid resource.
  • For advice on working with dashboard users to see what's working and what's not, user testing is critical. We recommend Steve Krug's book Rocket Surgery Made Easy as a guide. This is also a paid resource.

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