Phil Hearn: Blogger, Writer & Founder of MRDC Software Ltd.

Online dashboards five years ago. Online dashboards five years from now.

In the five years that I have been writing blog articles, the most significant change I can find is my thoughts on online dashboards. The filmmaker, Samuel Goldwyn, once said: “Never make predictions – especially about the future”. I also recall an old boss telling me to “forget the mistakes of the past, get what you are doing now right”. Well, I am going to break both of those rules and reflect on how my views on dashboards have changed over the last five years and predict where I see a change in the next five years.

Where were we five years ago?

Five years ago, I was writing about the extremes of online dashboards. I was explaining that you can publish an Excel dashboard online cheaply and that some of the templates were quite good. I went on to explain, however, that Excel was rarely suitable for market research data. For example, building even the simplest variable or handling multiple-response questions were not easily managed in Excel. At the other extreme, there were few tools available to produce online dashboards for market research. And, those that did exist were out of the price range for most surveys.

Customised dashboards

As a company, five years ago, we produced some customised online dashboards. While they were successful, they were slow to build, expensive and cumbersome to change. Customisation allows clients to have exactly what they want; the downside is that the easy things are nearly as difficult to implement as the difficult things. The available off-the-shelf products were generally from the BI (Business Intelligence) market, priced in tens of thousands of US dollars, quite challenging to use and beyond the budget of someone running a 10-minute interview on 500 respondents. And, let’s not forget – like Excel, they were not suited in most cases to market research data.

Viability of tracking studies and multi-country studies

The consequence of this was that the only projects that it was viable to put into a dashboard were surveys, such as large-scale tracking studies and big multi-country projects. Sadly, to some extent, that is still true. However, things have moved on, so let’s look at where we are now.

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Today’s online dashboard market

The biggest change is that custom online dashboards are not dead, but they are dying. Interestingly, this has come from pressure at both ends, which, I frankly, did not foresee five years ago. I was in little doubt that the top end products (or new products) would make it easier to work with market research data. There has been some significant progress although the industry needs to keep moving forward. What I did not foresee was that many of the low-cost online data collection software suppliers would add some level of dashboarding to their products.

The push from the bottom

The low-cost products have got more expensive over the last five years and have, in many cases, some decent online dashboard tools, making it easy to get from an online survey to online data access. Even though the capabilities may, at times, be quite basic and limited, this has served two purposes. Firstly, it has brought online dashboards more widely into the market research domain and, secondly, it’s pushed software suppliers of mid-to-higher level software to take online dashboards more seriously.

All great news except…

This push to deliver market research data online is great news. I wish it had taken less time as it would have helped the whole market research industry. There is still one big problem. The cost of such software is too expensive. Depending on the software you choose, the price could be US$20000 per year to use, US$100,000 per year or US$5000 per project. All of these prices are prohibitive to small to medium research agencies and not viable for a typical small-to-medium research project. The focus is still on large-scale tracking studies, big multi-country projects and the like.

Where MRDC sits

Earlier this year, we decided to adopt The CYS Platform as the chosen product to link all our software products to facilitate online dashboards. There were four core reasons:

  1. The CYS Platform has first-class data management capabilities (more about the importance of this shortly)
  2. The data visualisation tools that are part of the package are unmatched, in our opinion
  3. Its development path is highly focused
  4. The pricing is right

The pricing point is crucial as I believe it should be economic to deliver every research project in an online dashboard. It’s what clients want and, to be honest, what they expect. The CYS Platform’s pricing model has three main components – the annual fee to use to software and small (and I mean small) additional fees for additional projects and dashboard users. In other words, delivering an ad hoc research project as an online dashboard could cost as little USD100 per month or under USD40 per month with a regular flow of projects.

The importance of data management

This blog article is not going to divert into a sales spiel for The CYS Platform, but our reasons for choosing CYS are significant. The other important aspect of The CYS Platform is its data management capabilities. Yes, I know ‘data management’ never sounds interesting, and it’s hard to make it sound interesting. However, let me explain why as it connects to where I see the future of dashboards heading.

Pulling business data together

Data management is becoming an increasingly part of market research. Reliable technology now exists to connect data sources. This is a piece of good news for market research. It means that our specialist ‘market research data’ does not sit isolated within client organisations. It can sit alongside other data that is crucial to our clients. This may be sales data, KPIs, targets, enquiries…any business data that helps to interpret our market research insights more fully. This, in turns, put market research at a higher level – or, in the boardroom, as I heard one of our clients describe high quality data management.

More powerful data

If the research industry can put research data ‘on a stream’ with other continuous data, our product has more power. It wrests some of the power away from other organisations who have managed to chip away at the edges of traditional market research business.

What else in the next five years?

I think these developments are significant. I promised at the beginning to make predictions, so here’s three more:

a. Beautiful dashboards

Can you remember what websites looked like 15 years ago? Can you remember how much better they were 5 years ago? Can you see how they have progressed again today? Dashboards are the same. Infographics need to improve. They need to tell a story rather than just being ‘PowerPoint’ type online charts and simple infographics. The CYS Platform already allows you to have customisable infographics and is now moving to ‘moving infographics’ that can unfold and tell a story. This is only the beginning.

b. Even better data management

I have already mentioned the importance of data management and how The CYS Platform excels in this area. It will get even better as it connects using APIs (application programming interface) to other systems. Data connectivity will get better and better and less and less effort.

c. The norm in market research

Just as PowerPoint has been the norm for delivering research results for around 20 years, we are moving into an era when online dashboards becomes the norm. The overpriced software suppliers will need to specialise or bring their prices down. New entrants to the market will push online delivery of results forward. The deliverables will not stop at data, actions and feedback loops will be part of an ongoing research process.

I’m sure my predictions will be missing something, but I’m excited to see where this goes as it is a new opportunity for the research insights industry.

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If you want to challenge any of my thoughts, feel free to write to my at