When you hear people talk about data visualization you often hear the terms “dashboard” and “report” used interchangeably – but is this correct? Are they interchangeable terms?

The short answer is … no. While many use dashboard and report to mean the same thing, they are actually quite different terms, and the difference comes down to one simple factor:

Dashboards are dynamic and reports are static

Another way to think of this distinction is that reports typically show you how something was at a defined moment in time, while dashboards can show you both real time information and information from a previous time period while switching easily between multiple views and breakdowns. Let’s dive a little deeper into the unique attributes of each, and how they are used.

What Is a Report?

As stated above, reports are static documents that communicate data in text and table form. They can also include some basic charts or graphs, but are usually organized to emphasize particular raw numbers or pertinent data sets. Reports are generally distributed to company stakeholders at specific intervals (monthly, quarterly, yearly, etc). Because of their static nature, reports enable their creators to use carefully selected data to tell a narrative or data story about the company’s performance. 

Employees who don’t have access to unfiltered data and analytics tools should always be conscious of what data may have been excluded from a report, whether intentionally or not. They should also remain aware that reports contain past data that can’t be updated in real time, and represent a portion of all available data sets without the ability to filter or sort through them based on situational needs.

How Are Reports Used?

Reports are great for showing recapped information or controlling the message of the data. Often reports are printed, but can be viewed digitally as well. A great example of a true Report would be a company’s Annual Report. The Annual Report shows an overview of the company performance over the previous fiscal year, breaking down information when necessary, but designed to tell the overall story of a company.

What Is a Dashboard?

Dashboards are dynamic data visualization tools that are customized to show particular data, metrics, and KPIs. Because dashboards are “live,” the data is updated in real time and the information they display can change from hour-to-hour and even minute-to-minute. Due to their capacity for customization, dashboards can also be as specific or as broad as needed, and companies can utilize multiple dashboards to organize their data in the most efficient way.

How Are Dashboards Used?

Dashboards are ideal for viewing information regularly and closer to real-time than reports make available, and they also allow for the viewing of data by different channels, modifiers, and purposes. Dashboards are very useful for tactical decision making due to their real time provision of data and their ability to provide up-to-date trend analysis for a variety of uses. 

While dashboards were once associated with data scientists and engineers helping C-level workers keep an eye on their most valued metrics, the recent emergence of fully-managed KPI dashboards means that every department within a company can have access to data that will help them do their jobs better. 

Should I Use a Dashboard or Report?

The decision to use a dashboard or a report depends on the circumstances of what you are trying to accomplish and what your particular data needs are. Because dashboards can be used to measure virtually any type or number of data points, they are very effective for monitoring specific KPIs and aspects of a company that change over time. Compare that with reports, which are useful for looking at things with a broader scope and hand picking which historic information you want to apply in telling a specific narrative. At the end of the day, you don’t need to limit yourself to just one of these options: dashboards can be used to generate compelling data reports, and reports can be used to inform which metrics and KPIs a dashboard should be monitoring.

Have more questions about the difference between dashboards + reports, and how your organization should be using each for maximum impact? Contact us today and we’ll schedule a time to chat. We love talking all things data!