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Expert Q&A: The Challenges of Building Complex Dashboards with Open Source Components

By Yen Dinh
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When it comes to dashboards, the first instinct of many software companies is to build exactly what they want using UI components and open-source code libraries. While this may work for some product teams with very simple requirements, a one-size-fits-all experience typically doesn’t cut it. The trigger point often hinges around understanding and mapping user flows. This is especially true when you have a growing customer base and serve multiple user personas.

We asked Ryan MacCarrigan, founding principal of Lean Studio, about the key considerations that go into the build vs. buy decision for embedded dashboards. What do product people need to think about?

What are the top considerations for companies deciding whether to build or buy?

Ryan MacCarrigan: The first thing to consider is what role the dashboard actually plays in the overall user experience. For many products, a dashboard plays some role, whether it’s small or considered the beating heart of the product. And if that’s the thing your users are going to see first and last as they use the product, then arguably the dashboard isthe user experience.

The next consideration is this idea of how we can better design and personalize the dashboard to service multiple user segments. I really feel strongly that personalization needs to be discussed from day one, and it begins with the user onboarding process. The other key introductory issue is around prioritization. Who are the most important users, how do we go about validating that through research and testing, and specifically, what are our users’ desired outcomes?

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How do you get to know your users and their desired outcomes?

Ryan MacCarrigan: Everybody should be doing qualitative user research as an ongoing practice. When we do effective qualitative research, we are uncovering user behavior. You’ll often encounter users who can’t really describe what their specific end goals are. They just know that they want it to be easy, affordable, and convenient. That’s great, but it’s not very actionable.

What we want to be looking for is, what are their behaviors? What do their workflows look like? What are their current workarounds so they can achieve their desired outcomes? Knowing that is really essential so that we can design a more effective user experience for each of our target user segments.

I want to draw a key distinction between this idea of qualitative research, which we often associate with doing open-ended user interviews, and usability testing, which is more visual in nature. You should be doing both. Usability testing is really designed to be done with current or prospective customers who can interact with the dashboard and complete specific tasks. Do they really see and taste the value the product creates for them? And how long does it take to get there?

Why is personalization/persona-based segmentation so important in dashboard design?

Ryan MacCarrigan: The first real opportunity we have for persona-based segmentation is during the user onboarding process. For example, you might be familiar with the initial onboarding screen for TurboTax that says “Tell us about you” and then recommends the best tax solution. These questions are going to influence what the user sees later (some of the forms might be pre-populated based on key characteristics). That’s going to accelerate the process of getting you through onboarding and into the product. And the faster we can get you to value, the better the user experience is going to be.

The same is going to be true with any product that has an embedded analytics solution. If we onboard a new user, get them looking at a personalized dashboard and achieving their desired outcome—and do it as fast as we can—that’s the key to reducing churn rates in the first few days or the first few logins. And if we can reduce our churn rates early, the cumulative effect over time on revenue could be enormous.

What are the challenges of building rather than buying?

Ryan MacCarrigan: Most people who are confronted with this build versus buy dilemma are really questioning how much control they need to have early on. Do you really need total control over your analytics dashboard? If you do, is it going to be at the expense of delivering a more polished user experience and a UX we can update frequently?

This has enormous implications for how quickly we deliver value to users, whether we can keep the experience on trend, whether we can maintain security, whether we can scale, and whether we can deliver effective customer support as we scale. If we exhaust our resources and just focus on building, that comes at the expense of growing user engagement and revenue.

For companies that do decide to buy, what are key questions to ask analytics vendors?

Ryan MacCarrigan: A key question as you’re evaluating different embedded analytic solutions, is, can they support personalized dashboards? Is there the ability to actually segment the dashboard that users see, and to have role-based segmentation? More guiding questions: Can we scale our customer base, build and test new features, and provide hands-on customer support? Many of these embedded analytics solutions allow you to focus on your users’ needs without heavily taxing engineering resources or losing focus on your core product offering.

What is the biggest lesson learned you can share with companies facing this decision?

Ryan MacCarrigan: Don’t skimp on basic design research. If you are not creating user personas and using them as design artifacts to help guide your user research process, then I think you’re in big trouble.

A persona is not meant to be a perfect proxy for each of your user segments. What it does is allow you to have a clearer frame of reference and better articulate the pain points, behaviors, needs, and goals of your users. Your users just feel more real. And if your users feel more real, you’re able to better empathize with them. If we have better empathy with our users, we’re going to design a better experience for them, period.

Watch the on-demand webinar with Ryan MacCarrigan to learn more about making the build vs. buy decision >

Originally published April 15, 2020

About the Author

Yen Dinh is a content marketing coordinator at Logi Analytics. She has more than five years of experience writing content and is passionate about helping audiences stay updated on emerging technologies.