Want a dashboard? From Free to Bespoke, 5 Questions to Ask

Dashboard-Data-PostI’ll admit it: the thought of a colourful dashboard with real time data at my fingertips brings me joy. For those of us working in collaborations, how great would it be to have shared measurement online, with data democratically available and informing our learning through real time feedback loops?

I’ve been on the dashboard journey for a number of years now. While at United Way, we started experimenting with dashboard technology thanks to a pro-bono grant from a major corporation. Their graduates in their brand new suits cut their teeth developing a beautiful dashboard for us. We were able to track the number of books distributed in communities, visually represented with lovely line graphs showing outcomes, e.g. number and % of parents reading daily to their children etc. Truly, it was a thing of beauty.

Then we went to change it. Which is when we discovered we’d need a programmer, or someone with more IT knowledge than all of us combined to make even the smallest change. It now sits on server somewhere unused.

I’ve since been experimenting with a range of Dashboard options, and thought I’d share my experiences and key learnings to date. Here’s what I’ve found:

The (supposedly) Free Dashboard Tools
Over the past 2 years the number of online free dashboard sites have skyrocketed. I recently experimented with the Dash one of many ‘free’ online dashboards that promised a beautiful dashboard in just a few clicks. And sure enough, it was a very easy drag and drop process to create a functional, professional-looking dashboard. It was only when I went to share it with others (surely the whole point?), that I was informed that there would be a $10 monthly subscription for each user. Oh, and if you’d like to password protect it? That would be a premium product, and another $5 per month. You can see where this is heading.

I had other concerns in addition to the hidden costs:

  • Did I own the dashboard or did the Dash?
  • Where was the data being held?
  • Was the Dash going to be around tomorrow? What if it was bought out by a competitor?

So I started looking at other options.

The ‘Mid-Range’ Dashboard Tools
I was now interested in finding low-cost (not no-cost) options that could be updated by non-technical users, while having confidence that the company wasn’t going to disappear or lose data overnight. Many ‘business intelligence’ (BI) solutions that provided the end to end solution of data collection, storage, analysis and reporting using dashboards seemed to fit the bill. A number of these BI platforms now exist, such as  Tableau, Microsoft Power BI, Yellowfin to name a few.

Meanwhile, our sector started to see more providers offering tech solutions to track outcomes:

Some of these, such as Efforts to Outcomes and Penelope, are linked to case management, and there are many more here. Now we have lots of options! So let’s consider the pros and cons of these against developing your own bespoke solution:

Off-the-shelf (mid-range) solutions

  • Generally easy to install and easy to use, the quickest option to get up and running
  • Often come with licence restrictions i.e. number of users
  • Ongoing licence fees
  • Support is available through a variety of channels, possibly a help desk, community forums, product documentation etc.
  • Has been tried and tested
  • May require workarounds if it is not a snug fit
  • May interface with other programs

Tailor-made (bespoke) solutions

  • Can be suited exactly to your needs
  • Often comes with ‘the build’ expense up front both in terms of time and dollars
  • Removes the need for ongoing or multiple licence fees
  • Won’t go off line tomorrow if the company is bought out – you own it
  • Will require a person with programming skills (normally the person who created it) to make changes
  • However, can be updated by other people if developed in industry standard program by a reputable company and appropriate information is documented

The Skinny?

The reality is, to end up with a Dashboard that gives you what you need and is easy enough for all your stakeholders to access and update,  you’re going to pay for it one way or another. While off-the-shelf options are cheaper initially and offer beautiful, pre-designed dashboards, there are still significant ‘soft’ costs: someone still needs to set it up for your project/organisation, get their head around the system, understand how it can interface with your processes, and then invest more time in training others in how to use it. Tailor-made solutions will likewise require some staff time to develop, test and engage with the developer, but it will be the developer that assumes most of the labour. But while you’ve got a higher chance of ending up with exactly what you want with less staff investment, you will end up with a significantly higher bill.

Ultimately, you’ll need to make a call as to where you invest your resources. In my role advising organisations reviewing their dashboard, I recommend they consider the following 5 key questions in making their decision:

  1. Does it do what we need it to do? E.g. we want to track 12 indicators – does this let us do that? Does it allow us to upload the dashboard to our website so people can see it?
  2. How easy is it for us to adapt as our thinking evolves?
  3. If it is going to be used in a collaboration can multiple users across multiple organisations access the system and in what ways? (i.e. what are the licence arrangements)
  4. Where is the data stored and how is it protected?
  5. How much will it cost for set-up and ongoing for the first 3 years?

To summarise: with so many dashboard options now readily available, there’s no excuse not to invest in shared and real-time data if you’re serious about measuring change. But before selecting a dashboard solution, remember to check for any hidden costs, and consider the ongoing staff investments you might need to make to reap the benefits, especially for the cheaper, off-the-shelf dashboards. Those with complicated measurements, multiple stakeholders and large budgets may be best served by investing in bespoke solutions, while mid-range solutions tend to offer levels of sophistication and security that will meet most – but not all – data needs.

What’s your experience with dashboards? Do you have any experiences or recommendations to share? If so, I’d love to hear from you.

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