Developing Dashboards and Metrics

Ask eAIR invites questions from AIR members about the work of institutional research, careers in the field, and other broad topics that resonate with a large cross-section of readers. Questions may be submitted to 

This month’s question is answered by Dale Amburgey, Assistant Director, Institutional Research, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The ideas, opinions, and perspectives expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily AIR. Members are invited to join the discussion by commenting at the end of the article.

Dear Dale: We have been tasked with setting up a dashboard for our provost. What is the best way to develop one and what metrics should we include?

Dale Amburgey.JPGDashboards are important tools for all levels of institutional leadership, and proper planning at the beginning of a dashboard project can save time (and headaches) during the design and implementation phase.

I recommend a detailed discussion of the business questions your provost wants answered as the first step in your dashboard development. During this discussion, it is critical to identify and define the key performance indicators (KPIs) that will answer those questions. Further, be prepared to offer suggestions on potential metrics that he or she may not have considered. It is also important to understand the timing and time frame associated with these key performance indicators (real-time, point-in-time, census date-based on a specific number of years or academic terms) because they will have an impact on how you design your dashboard.

After you’ve identified the business questions to be answered and the KPIs to serve as metrics, you should have in mind the type of dashboard you need to develop. Most dashboards fall into one of three categories:

  • Strategic: provides a higher level overview of the institution to guide strategic decisions

  • Analytical: provides more hands-on detail and the ability to drill down to more detailed information

  • Operational: provides a real-time or point-in-time overview of a business process

Given my past experiences, I would assume that your provost would probably desire a strategic or analytical dashboard, or the combination of some elements that are included in both. For example, he or she may want to see a metric for overall enrollment (a component on a strategic dashboard) with the ability to drill down into the components that comprise the enrollment number, such as by level, college, or major (a trait of an analytical dashboard). Other popular metrics that academic executives tend to desire are retention and graduation rates, alumni giving percentages, and metrics associated with faculty workload, such as the number of sections an individual faculty member is teaching or the number of course contact hours.

When you assemble your dashboard components, remember that simplicity is important. Your goal is to provide a tool that will develop a visual representation of the desired KPIs in a format that is easily comprehended. Use your dashboard real estate wisely because it is easy for the number of data visualizations you include to increase quickly. Scope creep is one of the biggest challenges you will encounter in dashboard development. Remember to be careful in the selection of the color palate you choose because this could impact the printing of dashboard pages or how the data visualizations are interpreted by those with visual impairments. Also, it is imperative to understand the type of data with which you are working and utilize a chart that best fits the data type.

Traditionally, the data elements you want to place the greatest emphasis upon are placed in the upper left of your dashboard page. From there, more attention is paid to data elements down the left side and in the center of the page. The bottom and right side of your dashboard layout will receive the least amount of attention.

Finally, I believe that a dashboard is never complete. There must be a process of continuous evaluation and improvement. KPIs may change as the strategic direction of the institution changes over time, or a new metric may be identified that better answers a business question. Dashboards must be nimble and relevant to have a useful lifespan.




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