Business software providers of all stripes claim that their applications offer drill-down (also drill-in) functionality.

What do those terms mean? And why does it matter?

In this brief article, I will give a quick primer on what each term means, how they differ, and why they belong together.


It’s tempting to regard drill-down as interchangeable with common functionalities. Internet browsers let us zoom in on a line of text or a low-res picture. In a photo-editing app like Adobe Photoshop, we can magnify to edit images at the pixel level.

Yet drill-down involves much more.

In the case of a picture, our proximity is the only thing that changes. We see the same image from any distance. But with financial drill-down, the act of stepping closer provides details and dimensions we can’t access as a mere observer.

An example from ERP should provide clarity.

Suppose you have a screen that shows your company’s P&L (profit and loss) for 2018. Your profits peaked in July and declined the rest of the year. Why? To answer, you click on July. You see that one cost center accounted for most of your losses. You select it. When you click on any single transaction in that cost center, you’ll be able to view its underlying documentation—invoices, receipts, expense reports, etc.

The best financial applications combine drill-down with two other features.

Role-based access restricts the type of users equipped with drill-down, while a unified design enables decision-makers to navigate real-time data without reconciliation conflicts.

But drill-down performs best when paired with its inverse: drill-through.


In a crude sense, we can think of insight functionalities as directional. You drill-down vertically, while you drill-through horizontally.

Yet how does that difference translate into data architecture?

Let’s pick a product and a market. Since I work for a cloud ERP provider, I’ll choose our software—Xledger—and the ERP market.

When you drill-down, you move from one level in the hierarchy of data elements to one below it. When you drill-through, you navigate within a single level of that hierarchy.

In Xledger, drill-through means cycling through multiple formats for a single dataset. These formats, or views, cover a wide range of visualization options: heat maps, graphs, charts, pivot tables, and so on. As an Xledger user, you can toggle between formats seamlessly and at will.

By now, it should be clear why drill-down and drill-through belong together. With drill-down, Xledger users can tease apart any dataset to reach its most granular level. With drill-through, they can rotate that dataset like a physical object, toggling through multiple perspectives for a 360° understanding.

Use this relationship in your pre-purchase research. Whether in ERP or CRM, the most powerful software will treat drill-down and drill-through as two sides of the same coin.

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