P.S. On the Purpose of Dashboards

April 26, 2021
4 Minutes
Made Not Found Text
In SaaS businesses, operating results are earned every single day; and good businesses are made, not found. Writing here about building organizations, learning from the experience, and appreciating the ride.
Subscribe today to receive updates


I recently wrote that business dashboards are instruments of control. That observation and the related post, while hopefully helpful, made some general assumptions in discussing dashboards. So, this post takes a crack at addressing an ongoing open point about the existential nature of dashboards: what exactly is their purpose?

Although Stephen Few provides an excellent definition, it leaves room to debate dashboards’ ultimate objective.

Definition: A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance. — Stephen Few

Our observation is that the primary purpose of most dashboard initiatives lies somewhere between two general approaches, which can be loosely described as Reporting on one end of a spectrum, and Analytics on the other. The problem many operators face is that their efforts can wind-up betwixt and between the two, often without even realizing it. These two poles offer useful guardrails when considering the objective of any dashboard initiative; and examining and choosing between them helps to clarify many aspects of that dashboard. This kind of clarity, in turn, can help align and ultimately exceed stakeholder expectations.

Five seemingly simple (but deceptively challenging) questions offer a good start toward getting people on the same page:

  1. What problem should the dashboard address?
  2. Who is it for?
  3. What is the time horizon?
  4. Where does it originate?
  5. How might it look?

Although they’re a good start, these questions can admittedly be a bit opaque for practical application. To make them more actionable, we expanded the questions into a “quasi-diagnostic” table. This table captures attributes and examples of each approach, to help leaders identify and intentionally choose how best to prioritize and proceed.

Acknowledgement: “The difference between Reporting and Analytics” by Annie Musgrove https://blog.chartmogul.com/difference-reporting-analytics/

Identifying these characteristics and having open conversations about each can certainly de-mystify the purpose of dashboards and put an organization in a better position to optimize its time and resources.

A few caveats / qualifiers / comments about the above:

  • There is no right / wrong or better / worse across these two approaches. Both are valid and valuable to a business. The unique context of a given business will determine which takes priority. Reporting may be more valuable at one stage, while Analytics could take priority at a different phase.
  • These two approaches are not mutually exclusive; and they can certainly co-exist. For example, financial and operating metrics often live side-by-side. Totally true.
  • But where a lot of dashboard efforts go off the rails is misalignment on which column (or where on this spectrum) the initiatives strives to be at any moment in time. And, because it really is challenging (impossible?) to optimize for two different objectives simultaneously, it helps to make an intentional choice about what you are trying to solve and what takes priority.
  • Our experience is that the hardest problems to solve are the ones that cut across multiple departments (i.e. everyone has a hand in solving them). These include challenges like renewals / net dollar retention, packaging and pricing, delivering a seamless client experience, executing a market-driven product strategy). These tend to require cross-departmental collaboration and demand that organizations eventually evolve (over time) beyond a Reporting mindset and into a more Analytics / Operating one.

In closing, it seems worth following-up with one of my favorite go-to questions: So what? Why does the debate about dashboards’ purpose even matter?! Quite simply, intentionality matters when it comes to metrics measurement. Contrary to popular lore, it’s not so much that “what gets measured gets managed;” Danny Buerkli does a great job debunking that familiar trope here. Rather, as Buerkli succinctly argues, “Not everything that matters can be measured. Not everything that we can measure matters.” So true. And because sub-scale SaaS businesses operate in a world of big dreams but small teams, focus is our friend. Like any other product or service, dashboards should have a clear approach, objective, and target stakeholder…lest they lose their incisiveness and value. So, when considering dashboards, as with all things related to business building — choose wisely and with intent.


Are we speaking the same language? Let’s talk.

L8 icon
379 W. Broadway
New York, NY 10012

©2023 Lock 8 Partners 
Privacy Policy