Members of my team get pitches almost every day from vendors who are convinced we cannot last another minute without their dashboard. They send glossy e-mails and screenshots with dazzling, colourful charts and graphs that promise real-time data that no one else offers, and insights that will drive decision-making.

Sound familiar?

Dashboards are all the rage. Some are stand-alone tools. Some are the keystone of a new analytics or social-listening tool, such as Sysomos Heartbeat, Parse.ly, or Chartbeat. Some are baked into other tools you use, like a social CMS, such as Hootsuite or Social News Desk.

News media have plentiful choices when it comes to choosing a dashboard.
News media have plentiful choices when it comes to choosing a dashboard.

Inevitably, when you put your shiny new tool in the hands of members of your team, they will find all the flaws and reinforce a simple truth: No single dashboard can help your team do everything — no matter what the salespeople had promised.

In fact, one sign of a great tool is when the people selling it to you can clearly articulate its distinct, focused purpose while also identifying its limitations.

So after more demonstrations than we care to count, some members of my team and I have come up with a short list of best practices for evaluating metrics tools and dashboards, as well as key features we look for in the tools themselves.

  1. Funnel all pitches. We have found it enormously helpful to funnel all pitches to a small group to evaluate. They are the first line of defense, and when necessary, they involve others.

  2. Involve others. No matter how many people you involve, you will eventually have some people who feel left out. But try to minimise this by asking for live trials. If that’s not possible, schedule demos for specific stakeholders.

    End users do not need the full business-model presentation that executives and managers will see, for example. 

  3. Track your work. We keep a shared spreadsheet of vendors we have evaluated. We have found that different teams within the organisation have evaluated and passed on the same vendors over and over again, so keeping a repository of these contacts can help and save time. 

  4. Have discussions about the needs and wants of your team. Don’t let the sales people tell you what you need or want. Know it before they come to call.

    What data gaps do you have? What information do you want? How would having that information lead to better decisions? Knowing the answers to these questions before the demo will make the whole process better. 
A company dashboard should allow team members to act on displayed data.
A company dashboard should allow team members to act on displayed data.

So what are some of the features on our wish list with any tool?

  1. Data must be actionable. Dazzling, colourful graphics mean nothing if they don’t lead to actions. World maps are lovely, but don’t tell us much about how content is connecting with our loyal, local readers, for example.

    Will the graphs answer questions for you? Will changes in patterns be immediately obvious? 

  2. Dashboards must be shareable. Is the presentation available to several team members, or only those who use the tool or see the dashboard on a display screen in the office? Can it be e-mailed as a PDF? Scheduled? Can team members receive alerts?

  3. Dashboards should teach us something. Are you really telling me something I don’t know and can’t find quickly somewhere else? 

  4. Dashboards should be customisable. Can team members tailor their experiences? If they can’t, and it is one dashboard for everyone, are you sure that all the pieces of that dashboard are needed for all the users? 

There are so many tools that you can add to your toolbox these days, but it’s worth remembering what the word dashboard means. A dashboard in a car is not meant to be a dazzling control center that you gaze at for long stretches of time. It is meant to convey vital information that can help the driver make decisions while keeping the focus on moving forward.

Do your digital dashboards do that?