The Friday Report: Online reporting toolA review of the tools available for building online reports (collectively known as dashboards) reveals that there are five very important questions which you need an answer to before being able to make a decision about purchasing a dashboard product.

1. When do you need a dashboard, and when do you not need one? A requirement for a dashboard can sometimes be written into a proposal as something that ought to be asked for, but it’s important to know, for example, what kind of people will be accessing the dashboard and what their requirements are (eg are they analytical, or will they want something straightforward and simple?), how many users will need to access it (this may have a strong bearing on cost), and what additional benefit they will get from having access to a dashboard. It may be that other communication tools might achieve just as much if not more, for example an one-off online interactive that tells a story with some eye-catching graphics, or even a nicely-produced slide show or video.

2. Following on from question 1, how many dashboards will you need to build in a year? If the answer is more than about 5 (rough estimate) it’s probably worth looking at a tool. Less than that, and it may be more worthwhile to commission a serviced dashboard each time, which means that you can specify exactly what you want and don’t have to go to the trouble of purchasing new software and learning how to use it, the latter potentially costing more than the former in terms of employee time.

3. How customised do the dashboards need to be? Will the clients/end users all be happy with something which reflects their corporate ID in general terms, is secure and provides customisable access, will present charts or tables with drill-down options and downloadable content, and not too fussed about exactly HOW the significant differences are displayed or HOW the brand names are shown? If so, a tool on the cheaper end will probably suffice. If there is likely to be the need to customise elements such as graphics and text, and be more creative with layouts, make sure this functionality is part of the tool you are considering.

4. Can you make use of the entire functionality of an online reporting tool? Most products enable respondent level data to be uploaded, and have a cross-tabbing and analysis element which means that you can potentially use them to create the aggregated data you need as well as the dashboard itself. Most of them enable aggregated data to be downloaded either into Excel or PowerPoint charts, which could make report production a lot easier. Some of the additional spend buying the tool and training people to use it could therefore be offset against savings made by moving away from the more traditional data processing work flow.

5. Who will be using the tool? If the research executives themselves who set up the project and know the questionnaire, the client and the sector, also use the tool, this has the advantage that they can be very hands-on and have the data immediately at their fingertips for analysis and finding the story. However, if the tool is complicated, which it may be if it’s at the top end in terms of functionality, this might be a struggle. Another option would be to focus expertise within a small team of people who upload the data and build dashboards on behalf of the research teams. This would have the benefit of allowing a build-up of expertise and would mean that you could get more out of a high-specification product – but it may not be how you want to work.

There are no right or wrong answers to any of these, but knowing the answers would make a decision on the right online reporting tool much easier.

I will be publishing a detailed features matrix on the products I’ve covered very soon, which will be available as a free download.