Proven tips to make the best performance dashboards

Although good data is the heart of a performance dashboard, agencies should not underestimate the importance of good design, according to a new report. 

They have many choices. For example, the design could be a map, like on, or a series of colorful dials, such as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s dashboard.

But agencies should avoid creating a dashboard that looks like grids of numbers or other approaches that appear to the eye to be masses of text and data without any visual appeal, according to a report on best practices for federal performance dashboards from the IBM Center for the Business of Government.

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In defense of IT dashboards

Dashboard design is important and federal agencies should share best practices on their successful designs, recommended Sukumar Ganapati, author of the report and associate professor at Florida International University.

“Although design may be idiosyncratic and vary based on technical capacity within the organization, a set of best practices or standards would enhance design quality,” Ganapati wrote in the report.

Ganapati gave kudos to the patent office’s Data Visualization Center dashboard, which he calls “visually rich,” but he was less complimentary of the Food and Drug Administration’s TRACK dashboards, which he describes as “essentially tables.”

The author suggested that federal authorities create a website with standardized guidelines for dashboard best practices, along with focus groups to further hone the guidelines and gauge usability of the dashboards.

The report also recommends that federal agencies adopt standard data schemas, such as Extensible Business Reporting Language, and maintain high data quality. Without high-quality data, performance measures on the dashboards are compromised and credibility of the dashboard could be damaged, the author wrote.

Standard data definitions and training of key agency personnel are also needed to maintain high-quality data.

Agencies also need to be strategic in their development and use of dashboards, aligning their performance measures to organizational goals and considering who is in their audience, the report said.

“Dashboards are only tools to visualize performance data,” Ganapati wrote. “Their effectiveness depends on how organizations use them to enhance internal performance and external accountability and transpar­ency. Organizations should be cognizant of both the strengths and weaknesses of dashboards.”

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Wed, Oct 12, 2011

Dashboards are all the rage, the fancier the better,and IT companies love them all the way to the bank. Dashboards may be useful, but they have many pitfalls and hidden costs. The data streams needed to support dashboards are more often than not expected to appear at no cost other than the cost of putting the dashboard in place. The personnel needed to validate the quality of that data are almost never included in the cost of the system. And the effectiveness of having a good or bad dashboard in almost never evaluated.

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