If you’ve ever sat in the driver’s seat of an automobile, you’ve used the dashboard—or “instrument cluster,” to use the technical term. The dashboard puts all the information you need front and center, so you don’t have to take your eyes off the road to see what’s going on with the car.
There was a time when lots of information was available on a car’s dashboard. In addition to the familiar speedometer, fuel level, and coolant temperature, some dashboards included indicators such as battery voltage, oil pressure, and more.
In modern cars, the information on the dashboard has been reduced to the bare minimum needed to operate the vehicle. Electric and hybrid vehicles have a bit more information about battery health, but in large part, the only other thing you’re likely to see is one of several “idiot lights” that illuminate when something is wrong.
Modern information systems have adopted the dashboard model for all kinds of applications. Almost any business process you can think of can benefit from having a one-stop-shop for all essential information. You can see at a glance the health of that process, neatly summarized and designed. It’s even better if the information updates automatically in real time, or something close to it.
The “at a glance” part is important. To return to automobile dashboards for a moment, there was a time in the mid-1980s when car makers thought it was a sign of technological prowess to replace speedometers based on a mechanical needle with a snazzy LED readout that showed the exact number.
This turned out to be a bad idea, because drivers had to take their focus away from the road longer in order to read the number. It requires more cognitive effort than glancing at a needle and knowing that if it’s pointing in a certain direction and the vehicle speed is appropriate, without having to read any actual numbers. Most cars have returned either to mechanical needles or graphical representations of needles.
Similarly, with a computerized dashboard summarizing the status of a business process, it’s undesirable to make users read actual numbers or focus on endless tables. A shipping department supervisor doesn’t need to know the exact number of orders fulfilled; a better indicator is whether the team is on track to finish the day’s orders by the time the UPS truck arrives in the afternoon. This can be represented with a simple red/yellow/green “traffic light” indicator. Green is good, and that’s all the supervisor needs to know.
Computerized dashboards can be delivered in any of a number of ways—through standalone PC applications, mobile apps, or web apps. Web aps have seen growing popularity recently, so for the sake of brevity in this article, we’ll call them all “web dashboards.”
Fintech and Dashboards
Fintech (financial technology) applications have proven to be particularly fertile ground for the move to dashboards. It’s not hard to understand why:
- Fintech applications thrive on data; much more data than can be readily understood without some sort of summarization.
- The busy executives who use fintech often don’t have time to read through and interpret tables of numbers. They want to know what the status is now, and whether trends show movement in the right direction without spending a lot of time on it.
- Web dashboards enable users to “drill down” to view the underlying data with a couple of clicks.
- With the right data environment supporting it, a web dashboard can show real-time (or near-real-time) information. This is significant, because in our modern, fast-paced business world, waiting until tomorrow to find out what’s happening today may be too late.
- Web dashboards are usually easy to tweak. Business intelligence (BI) tools such as Microsoft’s PowerBI enable designers to quickly make changes to how information is calculated and displayed.
In short, web dashboards lend themselves nicely to fintech and the requirements of fintech users. Accordingly, fintech developers have been implementing dashboards to monitor things such as:
- Personal financial accounts – checking, savings, retirement, college-savings, and investment accounts
- Business metrics – revenue, cash flow, inventory, backorders, and operating margin
- Customer-support metrics – number of support calls, minutes per call, percentage resolved on first contact, percentage escalated to supervisors, and survey results
…and so on. The possibilities are endless.
Designing Web Dashboards
The process of designing a web dashboard for fintech or anything else, is trickier than it might seem. Designers need to ask important questions:
- What needs to be measured? Dashboards work best when they show a small number of key performance indicators (KPIs). Too many at once makes for an excessively busy dashboard, and important signals might get lost in the noise. Too few, and you may be omitting something important. Which KPIs to include on a dashboard—that is, which ones will accurately represent the status of the business process—will be the subject of some debate among the business end users. The most useful KPIs may not be intuitively obvious.
- How should they be calculated? KPIs that require some calculation, as opposed to simply reflecting the raw numbers, need to be considered carefully. A subtle calculation error can lead the business down a completely wrong path, or make things look better (or worse) than they actually are.
- How should they be displayed? At-a-glance metrics depend more on colors and shapes to convey their messages than on words or numbers. There are many ways to represent KPIs graphically. Deciding on the most effective way to graphically represent a given KPI is usually a challenge:
- heat maps
- speedometer-like gauges
- star graphs
- thermometer bulbs
- traffic lights…and the list goes on.
- How good is the data? A KPI is only as good as the data on which it is based. The data needs to be reliable, timely, and error-free. This can be a challenge when combining data from several sources to create a single KPI. Dirty, unreliable, or missing data can skew a KPI, making it misleading or useless for decision-making.
- How recent is the data? A KPI that is based on information in a data warehouse which is updated daily is not necessarily a bad thing. But a KPI based on a combination of daily-updated data and data that is updated every 10 minutes is going to be misleading. Similarly, a dashboard featuring real-time KPIs and daily-updated KPIs is less useful than one where all the KPIs are on the same schedule.
Dashboards Are Transforming Fintech—And Business
The advent of mobile tech, advanced web application development, and big data analytics has created an environment in which compelling web dashboards can be built and deployed easily. Business users can look at their data from angles that were difficult or impossible—or simply not thought of—just a few years ago. Web dashboards have enabled businesses and global organizations to make better decisions more quickly; short-term, tactical decisions and long-term, strategic ones.
The bottom line is, the informed-decision-making ability afforded by good dashboards gives businesses that use those dashboards an effective, competitive advantage over their peers that don’t. Little wonder, then, that dashboards are in such high demand today.