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Building Effective Digital Dashboards with Excel
a website analytics dashboard from BonaVista Systems

by Andreas Lipphardt, Design / Development, BonaVista SystemsMonday, June 18, 2007

Here is our latest Excel based dashboard. It’s a WebSite Analytics dashboard. The upper chart in the dashboard shows the Visitors in June, the lower part of the dashboard shows the Visitor / Traffic / Goal metrics enriched with area sparklines and a ranking table.

Microsoft Based Digital Dashboard

The whole dashboard was built with Excel and MicroCharts. People often ask us which tool we use to build our dashboards and are surprised that the answer is Excel. Excel is one of the most flexible (and cost effective) dashboard tools in the market and is useful for building information-dense, effective dashboards.

As Stephen Few outlined in his article, Pervasive Hurdles to Effective Dashboard Design, most dashboard vendors fail to build tools that can produce dashboards that demonstrate effective visual design.

Stephen wrote:

“Surprisingly, it is actually possible to achieve the layout flexibility that I’m advocating with Microsoft Excel. […] Charley Kyd’s book Dashboard Reporting with Excel is a good source for learning the dashboard design tricks that can turn Excel into a viable dashboard platform. Add to this the sparklines and bullet graphs that are provided by Excel add-in products such as MicroCharts from BonaVista Systems, and Excel can be used to create dashboard designs that would be impossible with most dashboard products.”

Here is my list of ingredients to build an effective dashboard with Excel

1.       Learn the Basics: Read Stephen Few’s book, Information Dashboard Design, to learn the basics about dashboard design and follow his blog about visual design.

2.       Extend Excel with Dashboard Widgets: Sparklines and bullet graphs are space efficient and information rich extension for Excel based dashboards. The MicroCharts Add-In extends Excel with sparklines, bullet graphs and many other in-cell charts, very easy to setup and format as they are simply new Excel formulas .

3.       Fix the Excel color palette: Excel users often produce unsatisfactory charts and reports using the Excel default color palette. Set up you own palette, search the web for templates with a better color palette or use a commercial Excel Color Manager like the Color Manager of MicroCharts.

4.       Use Data-Connectivity Tools: Use a data connectivity tool to pull the data from your database and OLAP cubes to Excel. Historically Excel’s built-in connectivity has been poor and there are a number of third party tools such as XLCubed, IntelligentApps, MIS Plain etc that do a much better job, providing you with a rich set of data integration capabilities.

5.       Use Excel to Web Solutions: Finally you need an Excel-To-Web Solution to publish your dashboard to the Web / Intranet so that it can be shared throughout your company. For example with a few mouse-clicks you can publish from within Excel a full dynamic Web dashboard with XLCubed Web Edition.

6.       Look on the Web for good example dashboards and blogs: A good dashboard is one that tells the viewer about the data that it is presenting. Unnecessary graphics, garish colors, 3D charts, spinning text are visual distractions not visualization aids. Recommended Websites for good Dashboards and data visualization are:

Here is a screen that shows how to build an area sparkline with the Excel Add-In MicroCharts:

Dashboard area sparkline with the Excel Add-In MicroCharts

MicroCharts has a color manager that allows you to re-configure the 56 Excel colors with an effective color pallet: Graduations in color, rather than separate colors, make it much easier for the dashboard consumer to comprehend the data.

Excel MicroCharts has a built-in color manager

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