Reports vs. Dashboards: Which One Should You Use?
Walk into any office in the country and you’ll probably find a report that somebody is putting together on a monthly basis. The initial request is usually innocent enough – “Hey we need to start keeping track of this so we know if what we’re doing is working, can you send us a monthly report on these metrics?” That begins a cycle of team members (or agencies) creating time-consuming monthly reports which are diligently sent to the management team. More often than not, the report gets no more than a cursory glance because the decision-makers don’t have time to read through the entire thing. The whole process becomes a box-ticking exercise that isn’t very effective at all. That doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, often what the management team actually needs is a dashboard, not a report, and knowing when to use each can help organizations save a lot of time and hassle.
Reports and dashboards are similar in the sense that they summarize findings for a particular data set, however they serve two different purposes and each have their use:
Dashboards present data in bite-size pieces and are meant to be understood quickly. Typically dashboards show a snapshot of data for a certain timeframe and are generated at regular intervals so people looking at them know how metrics are performing at that moment. The benefit of dashboards is that they quickly show if something isn’t doing what you think it should be doing (eg: your website traffic dropped 35% in one month) and if you’re reaching your goals (we met our target of raising $65,000 in donations this month). Dashboards also help reduce the effect of “analysis paralysis,” where you have so much information that you can’t focus on anything because there is too much to take in.
The key to dashboards is that they shouldn’t take long to generate or read. There is no in-depth analysis or time-consuming research, they are just a reflection of the numbers at a given point in time. Most analytics and project management platforms will let you set up and customize dashboards so you see the metrics you want to see.
My favorite tool to use to create dashboards is Google Data Studio. It’s free and it pulls in data from a wide range of sources including Google platforms (Analytics, Sheets, YouTube, etc) and 125+ partner platforms like Facebook, PayPal, MailChimp and LinkedIn. That means if you are tracking data across multiple platforms, you can put them all into one dashboard that automatically refreshes with the click of a button. What I like most is that it includes a variety of visual charts and graphs that automatically display your data. It also allows you to style everything from colors and fonts to chart sizes and layout. Once you’ve set it up, you can check in at any time to view your dashboard or download a PDF of it.
Reports, on the other hand, focus on answering a question in order to help make a business decision. For example, if an organization has run monthly dashboards and notices that their website traffic has been slowing down over the last quarter, they can put together a report to figure out why this is happening and what they can do about it. Reports provide an in-depth analysis on the data that dashboards just don’t give. That means they take longer to create and typically look at historic data to spot trends. They may even include research beyond just metrics, for example user interviews or market research, to help figure out why something is happening.
Reports aren’t read at a glance. Instead, decision-makers need to spend time absorbing the content so they can use it to set goals or guide their strategy.
Reports can be put together in anything from MS Word to Adobe InDesign. A successful report will include visuals to help illustrate its findings, but it will also include a lot of written content. I recommend breaking up a report into easy-to-digest sections that tell a story of the findings. For example:
- The Question – A brief overview of why this report was put together. This should explain why the topic is important to the organization and if the current situation is causing any business problems.
- The Research – What data was used, where it came from, and your level of confidence in the data.
- The Findings – An objective presentation of what was discovered from the research.
- The Recommendations – Suggestions on how to use these findings to fix the problem.
Including an executive summary at the start of the report, as well as at the beginning of each section can help those readers who are too busy to read through the entire thing.
Using reports and dashboards together
Ideally dashboards and reports are used together to give teams the right data at the right time. A sports analogy works really well here…
Imagine you are at a baseball game and halfway through the game you head out to grab some snacks for you and your friends. When you get back to your seat, you want to catch up on what you’ve missed while you were gone, so you take a look at the scoreboard to see how things stand. The scoreboard will show you what team is currently winning, what inning it is, and how the current batter is performing. To your surprise, your team has pulled ahead! What the scoreboard doesn’t tell you is that four of the runs that were scored while you were in line for hot dogs was down to a surprise grand slam by the worst batter in the team. It also doesn’t tell you that the batter has been focusing on his batting technique throughout the pre-season and his coach intentionally chose to put him in that line-up because he knew a grand slam was a possibility.
In this analogy, the scoreboard is like a dashboard. It gives you a summary of how things stand at a particular moment. A report, however, is like the post-game analysis on ESPN. The anchors can review all the action in the game and other influencing factors to analyze how that team won.
Organizations should use both dashboards and reports to monitor their progress towards the goals they’ve set. Not only does this help avoid analysis paralysis, it also reduces unnecessary work on the team members who are responsible for creating these documents. Data for the sake of it won’t help anyone, so focus on getting data when you are going to use it for something and free up some time for your team to work on other things.