Friday, 11 March 2011

Dashboard & visualisation software: The criteria

Edit: If you're looking for the conclusions of this post, please go here.

I'm coming to the end of an evaluation process for dashboarding software and it's been an interesting journey. Some pieces of software I've loved, others not so much and a theme running through the whole experience has been a serious difficulty with finding information on the pros, cons and pricing of each platform.

I had a rant a while back about how dashboarding software is sold. Coming out of that post, some discussion on linkedin and some very helpful people who got in touch, I've finally got a reasonable picture of what's out there and roughly what the different options cost. Capturing that sort of knowledge is what blog posts are for, right?

Over a few posts, I'll line up the candidates, with reviews and the path to the platform that's come out on top. First though, with so many platforms out there, what was I looking for?

I do econometrics (marketing return on investment analysis) at Brilliant Media, a mid-sized, independent media agency with three offices and 100+ employees. We've got a lot of basic marketing response data - click through rates and monthly spends, that sort of thing - plus more advanced modelling and forecasts coming out of the econometrics. There aren't vast volumes of data (a few million rows max) and it needs to be visualised clearly for our clients, who are marketing directors and managers who may or may not be comfortable with maths, stats and charts. I'm not expecting a dashboard to work miracles, but to be functional, effective and look good.

These criteria are probably fairly typical for a smaller dashboard project where the output will be viewed internally and sold to clients.

  1. Off the shelf, not custom.
    I'm not interested in starting a major IT project here, I want something that works out of the box as quickly as possible and can be built and maintained by (SQL capable) analysts with minimal programmer involvement.
  2. Low cost.
    Always! Our clients aren't huge and dashboard server solutions for ftse 100 companies really aren't happening. We need to get off the ground for a few grand, max.
  3. Web facing (or at least has the potential to be.)
    We're mailing spreadsheets at the moment and need to be able to step to web-based delivery.
  4. Better looking than I can do myself in Excel.Which actually sets the bar quite high - Excel's not bad if you put some effort in.
  5. At least as flexible as Excel.
  6. Easier than building and then mailing spreadsheets to clients.
  7. Data stored on our own servers
    There are some quite tempting cloud based solutions emerging, but we need the capability to include confidential data, so they're out from the start.
Finally, a word on OEM licences. OEM stands for Original Equipment Manufacturer and it's a world of confusion in terms of pricing. If you want to build a dashboard that you're going to sell to somebody else then you need an OEM licence, if you're building just for your own internal business, then you don't.

The trouble is, OEM licence prices (usually) depend on the scale of your deployment. If you want hundreds of people to be able to log into your dashboard, the software will cost a lot more than if you only want ten, even though it's the same software running on the same server in the same building. That's annoying and it can become absolutely infuriating when you don't know yet how big the market is for your new product.

If you want a giggle, ask your IT department to find out how much Excel Services will cost to deploy externally on your Sharepoint extranet. You'd think it being a recognised tool from a big company like Microsoft and the fact you've already got Excel would make it simple wouldn't you? Give it a try.

So a last criteria...

Transparent pricing. If I still don't know what the year one cost for the software will be after a ten minute conversation with a salesman then, forget it.

Excel services will be up first. Check back for more!

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