You have finished your great looking, very efficient Excel dashboard. Now, how do you share it? How do you make sure the users have a timely access to the latest update? This can be a serious issue, specially if you have a more tech oriented audience, and it must be addressed at the planning stage. Let’s browse the available options.
Good old-fashioned paper
For the tech savvy crowd out there this is something that doesn’t even cross their minds. But let’s face it, top managers are among the most computer illiterate groups in our society. If these are your users just handle them a sheet of paper to keep them happy and forget about those cool interactive charts. Make sure that your design accommodates this kind of use.
Since printed paper has a higher resolution than computer monitors you may want to create smaller charts and a more detailed answer to the question the dashboard is supposed to answer. I always wanted to create a dashboard to be printed in a A3 (or 11 x 17) folded sheet. Maybe one of these days… Remember that if you anticipate that users will print your dashboard you must test it for color and B&W printing.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking of a PDF file just as an electronic copy of a sheet of paper. User experience is quite different, and you must prepare for it. Users will be able to zoom, pan, add comments, copy a chart to a PowerPoint presentation, etc. Also if, for example, you have a marketing dashboard and it is used for different markets you can set up a simple macro to print a multiple page PDF, and add hyperlink navigation. It is a rich environment and you should take advantage of it.
You can send your Excel dashboard as an attachment to an email message. This will allow the users to save it locally and, unlike paper or PDF, you can add interaction, like selecting different markets, time periods or regions. Do your best to know what monitor resolutions your users have, and make sure that the users have security level settings that allow them to run macros (if your dashboard needs it). A cool thing to do with macros is to greet the user with the last sales data and open the dashboard with the correct market for that user.
File size and network security can prevent you from sending your dashboard as an attachment. Current file size may be smaller than you are allowed to send, but if the file is likely to grow (because you are adding more data) at some point you’ll not be able to send it. You can zip it but the problem remains, and some network security settings may prevent the users from receiving zip files.
Online / Intranet
If you choose this option the users will have a known location where they can retrieve the latest dashboard version from. You can add some nice touches, like pushing a new version to the user’s computer as soon as he appears online, or automatically send an email when the dashboard is updated (you can do it from the dashboard itself).
Some time ago, I was reviewing a dashboard tool and, although the product was pretty lame, I found that it had a clear advantage over Excel: it could publish dashboards for online access, using Flash technology. This means that it couldn’t manage real-world data sets, but still…
Finding a way to publish online a fully functional Excel dashboard with minimal impact over the way I’m used to do things is something that I’ve been waiting for quite some time. And if you can link the dashboard to the data set, well, that means heaven: you don’t have to open the file, refresh it and save it again.
I was unaware that this functionality even existed until Andreas told me about XLCubed. Last week I was able to install it and start to play with it. I will not tell you that this is a great product (not yet, anyway). But it is a great idea, and my expectations are high. Over the next posts I’ll tell you all about this process of discovery, but just being able to add “web publishing” to your list of options is already remarkable.
There is not a single best option to deliver your dashboard. It depends on your audience, file size, update frequency, implemented features, information infrastructure… That said, we know that the future belongs to web enabled applications and web delivery. Web publishing would be my personal choice, undoubtedly, but I’d try to help less tech minded users to feel more comfortable (like adding a visible Print button).
I like to create charts and dashboards, and I do my best to find solutions that answer user’s problems. But if I can publish a dashboard without worrying about access and updates, well, don’t try to find me here. There is a tropical island waiting for me.