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TechSoup Battles:Tierney tests SAP Dashboards

Data Visualization

New to TechSoup Battles? Find out what it's all about and check out our previous challenges. This review is part of our fifth challenge, on dashboard tools.

When deciding which dashboard tool to try out for this review, I immediately thought of SAP. Since one of their tools - SAP Dashboards - is specifically focused on dashboards, it seemed like the obvious route to go.

What did I think of Dashboards? Quick summary: at first it seemed unintuitive and I got a bit frustrated, but after watching some tutorial videos I was able to make the tool work for me and produce a really neat interactive dashboard.

Getting Started

As I hinted at above, my initial experience with this tool wasn’t exactly smooth. Things started off rocky during installation: I tried to install it on my computer, only to find that I needed a 32-bit installation of MS Office (one of the system requirements) - but I was running 64-bit Office. After some research told me it wasn’t a big deal to switch, I uninstalled Office and reinstalled it as 32-bit, and was able to finish installing Dashboards successfully.

Once I had Dashboards up and running, I was no less mystified as to how I was actually supposed to use this tool. My initial theory was that I was supposed to open a spreadsheet with my raw data (in this case, a list of donation requests from the last month), and then create charts that aggregated this data. As the program kept telling me I wasn’t allowed to select that much data, I realized that what it actually wanted was pre-aggregated data to display (e.g. the total number of donation requests each week, rather than a list of all donation requests).

At this point I also realized that I wouldn’t be able to make any more than a static chart without some extra help. After some digging around and false starts, I tracked down SAP’s list of video tutorials for this product. I found they were well done and extremely helpful in getting some of the more powerful features working (I suggest starting with this one for an overview of how it works). Things were starting to look up!

Creating a Dashboard

My original goal in all of this was to be able to display my data in a succinct, interactive format - which a spreadsheet program could help me with but only to a point before it got unwieldy. Fortunately, this is what Dashboards does well. I’ll spend the rest of this review sharing some of most useful features I found, with examples.

A quick note on the examples: at TechSoup Canada, one of the key metrics we need to track to help us make data-informed decisions is the number of donation requests that nonprofits place on our site, and for what donor partner (e.g. Microsoft) and product (e.g. MS Office). Prior to creating my dashboard I already created a spreadsheet with the data that I want to visualize: the number of donation requests each week by donor partner. Since the actual data is confidential, the numbers are completely made up.

Colour indicators for good and bad performance

When viewing a chart in my dashboard, I want to be able to do more than just have a graph of the data. I want to be able to quickly see whether the values I’m looking at are “good” or “bad”, according to my own definitions. Dashboards does this through “alerts”, letting you set thresholds as a percentage of a target or as a value.

For my example, I’ve created a line graph showing the number of donation requests for Microsoft products each week. I’ve also set the Alert feature of the graph to mark a data point as red if the value is less than 120, yellow if it’s between 120 - 150, and green if it’s over 150. Here’s what it looks like in the Dashboard designer:

Using Alerts in SAP Dashboards

Change what data is displayed

Now if I went ahead created a chart like that for each of our donor partners, they wouldn’t fit on my screen! Instead I can use a “selector” to make my chart serve multiple purposes. I’m going to use the radio button selector for this example, but there are several other options including a drop down menu and a check box.

How it works: In my selector I’m going to list of a few of the donor partners that I want to track. Then I’ll link my selector to the chart, so instead of populating the Microsoft information it picks the information for the selected donor partner. This allows me to pick the donor partner I want to see, and the chart automatically shows me the donation requests for that donor partner each week:

Using a selector in SAP Dashboards

 

“Drill down” with multiple charts

I’m going to add one more set of charts to my dashboard. My goal is to see how many requests were made for each donor partner in the past week, and then drill down to see what products were requested from that donor.

I’ve started by adding a pie chart which shows me a breakdown of the number of donation requests for each donor partner in the past week. Then, I’ve added a bar chart to show the orders for each product. To link them together, I’ve used the “data insertion” feature which is similar to how the selector worked in the previous example.

Now what happens is that when I click on a donor partner’s segment in the pie chart, the breakdown of requests for their products appears in my bar chart. To keep it simple, I’ve only put in data for two products for each donor. In this example, Adobe is currently selected:

Using two charts to drill down in SAP Dashboards

I will admit that while this worked well for my simplified data, I haven’t yet figured out how to get this to handle more complex data such as a varying number of products per donor partner. As well, I found it a bit finicky - I had to set it up in a certain way to make it work, and then if I made any changes I had be careful not to break my previous work.

Viewing & exporting my dashboard

While I’m building my dashboard, I can “Preview” at any time to interact with it and see if it works the way I intended. However at some point you obviously want to export your dashboard so others can view it. Dashboards offers several options, all of which use Flash in some way as far as I can tell.

I tried exporting my dashboard with many of the available options, including: Flash (SWF), HTML, PDF and PowerPoint. In all cases I was pleasantly surprised to find that the dashboard still had all of its interactive features, even in these other formats. I could see the HTML being useful to publish the dashboard on your website or intranet, and the PowerPoint being useful to embed this in a larger presentation such as an update for your board. The only downside is that each time you want to update the data in your dashboard, you need to update the spreadsheet in Dashboards and re-export.

Summary

What I really liked about SAP Dashboards is the ability to turn my spreadsheets into an interactive dashboard, and then to be able to export it so I could share it with whoever needed this information. I think the interactivity could be very useful to present quite a bit of data in a clean, compact and useful way.

If you want to get a better idea of what I mean by interactivity, you can download my sample dashboard in PDF or PowerPoint format (note that the dashboard probably won't work in the preview, you'll have to download the file).

The big caveat I will give is that while this program doesn’t require any programming skills to use (if your data source is a spreadsheet), it does require some tech savvy, a good level of familiarity with Excel, and a bit of a learning curve to get started.

Of course this review only covers a few of the features available in Dashboards. I didn’t get a chance to look in more depth at the other types of charts and visualizations available (including bubble charts, gauges and maps), the theming options, other data sources (besides spreadsheets) and more features that are available. However I hope this provides an idea of what this tool can do and how it could be used.

Have you tried SAP Dashboards? What did you think?

To learn about other dashboard tools for nonprofits, read our TechSoup Battles dashboard tools summary.