The Tender Compliance Dashboard is a static dashboard that I designed for use in a tender evaluation process for an organization I worked for. Naturally, the details of the information in the dashboard were changed to protect the confidentiality of information within the dashboard. The modified data do not hamper with the dashboard design and thus, valuable design principles can still be gleamed and learned from it.
The Need for Dashboards in Tender Evaluations
It is common in many organizations, especially publicly-listed corporations, to have a tender process established in order to procure the best possible services at the best cost from other companies for their various projects. An organization would made its request known through what is commonly referred to as request for tenders or request for proposals, thereby inviting companies to apply and bid for projects or parts of projects. Public companies or governments usually publish these requests publicly via mainstream media or on the corporate website, while private companies do so via their internal process where there is less public scrutiny.
In many cases, an organization’s tender request would list the requirements needed for suppliers to comply. The tender also usually needs to be submitted according to a certain format specified by the organization, to ensure standardization of proposal, but more importantly, for easy sorting of information. An open tender, such as the ones found on publicly-listed corporations, usually would attract hundreds of bidders. Since time is always of the essence, there must be an efficient method to filter and sort out only the qualified bidders, and then the best suited for the organization.
Since the dawn of the Internet, it is usually easier to accomplish certain parts of the tender process, such as bidders’ compliance and minimum qualification, through online tender process, where it is easier to setup standardized filters and drop-down menus. It is especially useful for process steps that require little to no human intervention. Bidders who do not comply to certain requirements or do not complete their submission cannot possibly submit their bids. Still, there are tenders that are done manually through paper submission and thus, an organization may need longer time and larger team to manually verify and then evaluate bids.
Regardless of whether automatic or manual work is involved, we always need to have the ability to present the result of a tender process effectively to human audience. The result of a tender process is often lengthy, filled with various evaluations and recommendations that justify them. That is of course understandable, given the amount of money that tendered projects are valued at. However, consider this. If you are a senior executive who is usually preoccupied most of the time, you would not want to read a hundred-page document (for example) that details the result of a tender process. Sure, you may want to view the details if needed, but most of the time, you will probably want to see only summaries of these documents, presented as effectively possible, and then look at the detailed reports if needed. This is where a dashboard can help.
The Definition and Functions of Dashboards
There are many definitions of a dashboard. A simple Google search using various keywords would yield thousands of results. In my view, the best definition for a dashboard that I have found is the one provided by Stephen Few of Perceptual Edge. In his article titled Dashboard Confusion Revisited, Stephen defined a dashboard as:
A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.
– Stephen Few, Perceptual Edge
The keywords that can be gleamed in that definition are:
- Most important information: Dashboard space is limited. A dashboard designer must select the most important group of data that fits his/her objective.
- Consolidated and arranged on a single screen: These data must be presented using the best method possible in a single screen and ordered in a certain way that would allow a reader to quickly and easily glance at the data.
Applying this definition to the result of a tender process, it would allow a reader to view the most important group of information all in one screen in a logical flow. A dashboard would allow the reader’s mind to make connections between the various data within the single screen and thus enable the reader to effectively evaluate decisions or next course of actions based on the dashboard data.
The most powerful feature of a dashboard is the single screen display. Displaying a group of information in one visible screen is a very powerful tool that can aid humans to make fast evaluations without the need to refer to other pages in a report or switch to other files on a computer screen. The group of information would be readily available in our field of vision and allow our working memory to evaluate them effectively. If some information are not available on the single screen, we would need to refer to them and then switch back to the current screen, thereby disrupting our flow of thought. It may seem trivial, but those few seconds are critical to the continuous flow of thought. As powerful as our brains may be, but our working memory is quite limited. We can only hold so much information in our working memory before we forget about them.
We have all experience this when we try to remember a sequence of numbers, or cram for an exam. It all has something to do with the limitations of our working memory. George Miller did a research in this field back in 1955, in his research titled The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information, which proposed that we humans tend to remember data in chunks of information, more commonly known as the 7±2 magic number. It also explains that while we like choices, too many choices would muddle our brain. You may have experienced this when you do your groceries. It is easier to choose one brand of a particular item from a choice of five as compared to fifteen, for example. Barry Schwartz explains this paradox in his book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. It is still quite a highly debatable field of study though. A research in 2010, featured in the Journal of Consumer Research, concluded that given a “well-defined preferences prior to choice”, perhaps more choice is better. It is all very interesting indeed.
Designing the Tender Compliance Dashboard
In a tender process, there are usually many steps involved, and each organization has unique ways on how to perform it. For simplification purposes, in order to illustrate the featured dashboard, I summarize the steps from the opening of a tender to the award of contract as below:
- Compliance: The process of sorting out which bidders comply to the tender’s terms and conditions, and whether they meet the minimum qualification in order to be considered for evaluation.
- Evaluation: The process of evaluating bidders’ resources, capabilities and competitive advantage. These can range from technical, financial, support services, brand recognition, and many other categories.
- Selection: The process of awarding to successful bidders and signing of contract between the awarding organization and the successful bidders.
The featured dashboard refers only to the first step, compliance. Dashboards from other steps would not be shown as I believe this example would provide enough evidence for the usefulness of dashboards in a tender process.
The tender referred to here involved the purchase and delivery of a device in multiple quantities to various geographic areas. Bidders needed to justify their technical capabilities in the device’s features, fast delivery, and excellent after-sales service. They also needed to be price-competitive. The Compliance Committee for this particular tender was required to evaluate bidders’ compliance to the tender’s terms and conditions. Each bidder needed to be licenced and submit their tender document on time. Each bidder’s tender document was also required to follow a format which includes documentations specified by the organization. Failure in any of these categories would result in non-compliance for the bidder.
The committee would then needed to record the regions which were offered by each bidder. Bidders had the option to choose which regions to serve, and the award of tender can go to more than one bidder, as the organization could decide to award each region to different bidders. The committee were also required to record the cost of the device offered by each bidder. Each bidder was required to submit only one price point, as they could only submit one specification for the device they offered. As such, bidders needed to consider their variable overhead costs in delivery and support before submitting their tender documents.
The results based on the Compliance Committee‘s evaluations were then channeled to the various evaluation committees, and they had their own procedures as specified in their specific evaluation processes. The Compliance Committee‘s evaluation resulted in a 79-page document, which as I mentioned above, would be daunting to read especially for senior executives, who would prefer summaries instead. This is where the dashboard comes in handy. It allows the display of all relevant information in one single screen.
As explained above, there are three useful groups of information, summarized below, in order from most important to least important:
- Compliance based on licence, submission time, and submission of documents.
- Regions offered by bidders.
- Cost of device offered by bidders.
In a dashboard design, consider your audience. If the language used in your dashboard is read from left to right, place the most important information from the top left to the bottom right, as this would be the normal reading flow that the audience is accustomed to. If your audience read from right to left, such as in Arabic language, then you need to present the dashboard the other way round, by placing the most important information from top right to bottom left. This is something that is commonly forgotten in dashboard design.
Even in a dashboard, with all relevant information placed in one screen, some information are more important than another. The most important information in a dashboard can be placed at the top of the screen or at the beginning point of reading by the audience, either top left or top right.
In the featured dashboard, the most important information is placed at the top left, highlighted by having a background colour different than the rest of the dashboard, as in the picture above. Since the most important data in the committee’s evaluation is the number of complied bidders, this information is placed at the very top and highlighted prominently in a green shade. The credential summary follows next, and it summarizes the number of bidders which have certain types of licences. The committee summary shows the amount of work spent by the committee in evaluating its portion of the tender process. This information was included because there was no prior detailed baseline data available to estimate how much time is needed to evaluate a tender. By placing it prominently here, it can be used to estimate the time required for similar tender process in the future.
As you go along the dashboard, imagine that you are given this dashboard which summarizes the Compliance Committee‘s evaluation. As you look at the number of bidders, namely 308, and 296 of them comply, the next natural question that comes to mind is “why the remaining 12 bidders did not comply?“. As such, the Compliance Details, as pictured above, is placed right next to the Summary, where your eyes would naturally follow. The detailed information summarized the non-compliant bidders in easy-to-comprehend categories. Two of them, namely late submission and no licence, are of interest in this case and thus were placed prominently. The other reasons were placed in the last section under non-compliance.
Note that as I explain the logic of the dashboard design, it always comes down to the two keywords from Stephen’s dashboard definition mentioned awhile ago – the display of the most important information and then consolidating and arranging them effectively. The Compliance Details prioritizes two most prominent reasons for non-compliance and placed them visibly because these are the two most common reasons. As you design your dashboard, always ask that question – which information are the most important for your intended audience – and place them visibly on the dashboard.
The next important information is the bidders’ regional offering, and the first of this information involves the number of regions that each bidder offer. This particular nation divides its geographical area into 60 regions. Regions 1 to 38 are located on the west coast, and regions 39 to 60 are located on the east coast. The full report contained the details of bidders’ name and which regions they serve. However, in a summarized environment like a dashboard, only the most important information needs to be shown, especially to audience like senior executives. In this instance, the audience is primarily interested to know three information – the number of bidders that can serve all regions, west coast only, and east coast only. The table at the top of the Geographic Spread excerpt shown above lists these numbers while the bar chart below it shows the same information plus the spread of all bidders.
As only relevant information needs to be shown, the chart does not show the exact numbers for each data point through data labels – only the three most important information were labeled. This is so that these particular information stand out. This technique is explained more in my post, Communicating Clear Message in Charts, in which I discussed the principles of presenting a chart’s intended message as clearly as possible. The act of labeling the three piece of information and linking them with remarks to show which one refers to nationwide, east coast, and west coast are an example of communicating clear message. Without it, the audience might need to think about the chart and its message.
You can still observe an interesting pattern from the bar chart. Notice that 62 bidders (the highest amount) can serve the whole nation, while only a minimal amount – 2 and 8 – can serve east coast only and west coast only, respectively. The chart also shows a pattern that most bidders can offer only between 2 and 6 regions. The terms and conditions of the tender dictated that the bidders need to offer only one price point for their product, and they had to consider their overhead costs. Serving multiple regions would not be possible for some bidders who are small and only operate in certain regions. Already we can discern some interesting patterns from this chart alone. When delving further, the full report showed that all 62 bidders who can offer nationwide were large companies with the capability needed to serve nationwide, while most bidders who can only offer limited number of regions were smaller companies who have local presence in these regions.
Now that you, the audience, have observed the summary of bidders’ regional capability, the next natural information that we need to know is “how many bidders bid for each region?“. The excerpt above shows the number of bidders that bid on every region. Again, the exact numbers were not labelled, as the full report would contain such details. What we are interested in is the pattern within the data. As such, the most obvious pattern in this chart is that there are more bidders who bid on west coast regions as compared to east coast. Delving further into the full report, this was expected as the east coast regions are less developed comparatively, and thus would increase the cost of delivery and support. As such, those regions would attract less bidders.
Remember that I mentioned the fact that we need to ensure that this message is communicated clearly in the chart. We do not want our audience to think about the chart, only the message. As such, the use of simple vertical and horizontal line that separates east coast and west coast (between regions 38 and 39) and labeling them correctly with the summary “more bids in west coast“, ensured that this message is clearly communicated.
Lastly, the tables next to the chart lists the top and bottom regions with the exact number of bidders which bid on them. Again, the full report would contain every single region’s data, but for summary purposes, this should be enough. As you may observe, the data reinforces the chart by having all the top regions in west coast, and the bottom regions in east coast.
Finally, we get to the last important information for the Compliance Committee, which is the device cost. We know that each bidder could only submit one price point. Therefore, no region-specific summary of device were required. What we might be interested to know is which are the most expensive and the least expensive bidders. To that end, the two tables provided that information, and each bidder’s price was shown along with the average of all bidders, for visual purposes. You will observe from the excerpt above that the device cost of Company 16 and Company 15 were considerably larger than the rest. Also, Company 14‘s device cost seemed to be much lower compared to the next least expensive bidder.
As the spread of continuous data points, such as the non-integer device cost in this dashboard, it might be worth it to show the spread of all bidders’ device cost. To that end, the box plot chart provided this visual. The differences in price for companies 14, 15, and 16 became more apparent in this chart, and you may note that the rest of the bidders’ price fell within about the average. The audience can then ask follow-up questions as to what made the device cost of these three companies drastically different than the rest? Could it be the device quality? Could they have different capability in delivery and support? These follow-up questions would be valuable for the evaluation committees in their specific evaluation tasks.
One final thing before we wrap up. Always place the “last update” information in your dashboards. This is especially important if a dashboard needs to be printed. Your audience may be interested to know how current the information in your dashboard is. Also, you may want to place your contact (name, number, extension, etc) so that your audience would be able to reach you easily. These information can be placed in either the top of the dashboard (such as the case here), or at the bottom of the dashboard.
In this post, I utilized the featured dashboard to illustrate the importance of prioritizing the most important group of information needed to be displayed in a dashboard and how to logically arrange them. However, there are more elements of dashboard design that I will touch upon in future posts – things such as the choice of colours, fonts, and interactive elements, to name a few. I look forward to writing about them.