Information at a glance, this pithy statement embodies the purpose of a small business dashboard. A business dashboard much like that of a car dashboard quickly communicates key metrics to stakeholders. A car dashboard communicates information about speed and fuel level to the driver. In a small business key metrics about operational and financial performance are communicated to small business owners. The following is a brief outline of the typical process we employ when creating Excel based dashboards for our clients.
Gather Requirements and Assets
This is arguably the most important step throughout the entire development process. Gathering the critical requirements determines the duration and final layout of a project. If this step is misaligned the remainder of the project is set on a course for failure. Requirements can take on many forms. It involves items like project due date, source data, key metrics and chart formatting to name a few. Discussing these items early can uncover opportunities that Excel can offer the client or reveal challenges.
One area of particular importance in the requirements stage is to understand the destination of an Excel dashboard. The destination can take on two forms, the end reviewer of the dashboard and the presentation format. For one of our recent clients the end reviewer was the head of a government agency. Knowing the needs of the end user helps shape the final dashboard. The dashboard developer needs to ask important questions like: Why is this dashboard important to the end user? What does he\she focus on? What is he\she use to seeing? Should the dashboard be static or more exploratory? Having this knowledge can help structure and guide the project. The second destination form involves presentation. Very often a dashboard is used to populate a Word, PowerPoint or a PDF document. Having this information in advance will frame some of the technical requirements for the final dashboard solution.
Assets are items needed to complete a project. Assets can be Excel templates, client sketches and text\verbal descriptions, to name a few. We often summarize requirements and assets needed in a written proposal. This document then serves as a barometer of success for the final Excel related solution.
Rapid Prototype and Feedback
The next step in creating a dashboard for a small business is creating a rapid prototype. Prototypes are basically models that give a business owner a better feel of the final product. We usually turnaround a quick prototype within a day or so, this gives the client time to review and supply immediate feedback. This step ensures that the final product will meet the client’s expectations. Rapid prototypes can take on two forms for a dashboard. Prototypes can be non-functional or functional. The non-functional prototype is basically a template that visually communicates the layout of a dashboard. The client can review the format and provide additional feedback on color scheme, font size, wording etc. The next type of prototype is a functional prototype. This prototype has the “engine”, so to speak, built in. Dynamic elements, such as form controls, macros, functions and formulas are added to bring the dashboard to life. This dashboard gives the client a clearer view of the final product once fully tested.
This step is a bit of a misnomer, because it takes place throughout the life cycle of a dashboard project. Constant communication is needed between the dashboard developer and end user. This critical step ensures all requirements are met, and the dashboard focuses on key parts of the business.
The steps outlined in real life don’t follow a linear path. In most cases each of these components are re-visited multiple times. The final product is a tool that can be used to foster growth and increased profits for a small business.