Effective Dashboard Design: 3 Keys to a Solid Foundation

Does this sound familiar: Your company decided to be data-driven, so you’re pulling data from multiple sources and drowning in it, trying to figure out what’s important.

If so, you’re not alone!

Many businesses are overwhelmed with data overload. In fact, in its Guide to Business Dashboards, Klipfolio reported that “managing and extracting real value from all that data is a key challenge facing modern businesses.”

Dashboards are self-service BI tools that can help.

Effective Dashboard Design

Why Use a Dashboard?

Simply put, a dashboard can effectively share complex company data at a glance.

Many times, managers won’t share information about the company with their employees. This is called Mushroom Management, and it highly inhibits an employee’s ability to make good decisions and stay productive.

In a survey to learn more about the phenomenon, more than 75% of participants said they don’t trust bosses who fail to share company data. It also reported that only 10% are aware of the company’s progress in realtime, and more than 15% never see any company performance data.

As Klipfolio states in its guide, “a well-designed dashboard has the ability to inform users across the organization and provide on-demand access to core metrics.”

Dashboards also give employees a better understanding of their role by reducing the time and effort it takes to compile reports and share information across the company. This helps them understand how they impact the business and allows them to make well-informed decisions.

The Challenge

Dashboards can be great tools for data management. But when creating one, it’s not enough to simply put a bunch of data points on a board and place a few graphs here and there.

Google’s Digital Marketing Evangelist and Co-Founder & Chief Education Officer for Market Motive, Avinash Kaushik, highlighted the problem with this in his Occam’s Razor post on digital dashboards:

“This is our challenge. Somewhere along the way we’ve lost our way. Dashboards are no longer thoughtfully processed analysis of data relevant to business goals with an included summary of recommended actions. They are data pukes. And data pukes are not dashboards. They are data pukes.”

Bottom line: Dashboards are created with a lack of focus.

Without focus, there is no understanding of what metrics are important to the end user. To compensate, a “full overview” of the company’s progress is shown with too many KPIs and data comparisons crammed into one place. This makes the information confusing and hard to read. No one can make good decisions if they can’t understand the information.

Building a Foundation

Before creating a dashboard, you have to start with a solid foundation.

This process starts before even opening the solution. In fact, there’s some investigative work you have to do.

Based on a few existing guides (Juicebox’s A Guide to Creating Dashboards People Love to Use, Sisense’s Six Questions You Need to Ask Before Building a Dashboard and Geckoboard’s Designing and Building Great Dashboards series), the following questions will narrow down what to include:

1.) What is the objective of your dashboard?

First, figure out what point of view your dashboard needs, prescriptive or exploratory.

Described in our Definitive Guide, prescriptive analytics recommends actions based on what was discovered during descriptive and predictive analysis. For this type of decision making, the dashboard will give context to what the data means and how it should be used.

However, exploratory decisions require a little more freedom so users can interpret the data accordingly. This requires a broader set of metrics and abilities to drill down into granular views if needed.

It’s important to determine the scope of the dashboard before picking out any metrics to include. A specific dashboard tracks the metrics of a project or process. To keep the view simple, Sisense suggests only using a few visualizations and colored alerts to show when certain goals are met.

A broad scope is useful for tracking data about the overall performance of a department or business. This means that the dashboard will be pulling from a wider set of data, and it may have more widgets and visualizations.

2.) Who is your audience?

Who are the end users of the dashboard? Is the dashboard just for the CEO? Or will it be shared with the sales team or HR department?

In an interview with Daniel Mintz, Looker’s Chief Data Evangelist, he mentioned that most dashboard users can fall under three categories:

  1. The Data Developer – The developer has a deep knowledge of databases and can answer queries within the database if needed. Dashboards allow these users to efficiently and effectively outsource their knowledge. This is the smallest group of dashboard users.
  2. The Analytically Minded – These people might have a lot of questions, but don’t have the deep knowledge of databases to answer them. Typically holding positions like product marketing, finance or operations, a dashboard empowers the analytically minded to answer their own questions.
  3. The Business Executive – Business executives such as a company’s CEO are the largest group of dashboard users. Usually, dashboards built for executives are viewed as static tools to evaluate the company’s performance. However, dashboards are becoming robust enough to include drill-down features for these users, reducing the time needed to generate and distribute reports.

Depending on their company role, different users will look at metrics with different perspectives. When designing a dashboard, you have to consider several factors, such as including the KPIs users need most and features that allow non tech-savvy users to understand the data.

3.) What type of dashboard do you need?

Do you need a high view of the data on the dashboard or do you need a more detailed, granular view? Is the dashboard showing predictive, historical or real time data? How often should the metrics be refreshed?

According to Geckoboard’s guide, there are three categories for dashboards can:

  • Operational – As the name suggests, operational dashboards monitor your company’s operations. With real time or near real time data available, the dashboard tracks the performance of the assets that keep your business running.
  • Strategic – Strategic dashboards offer a high-level overview of the business to point out key insights and business opportunities. They’re typically updated periodically and include KPIs that are critical for an executive team to make decisions.
  • Analytical – Analytical dashboards are used to explore the data and discover non-apparent insights. They can include features to drill down into data for more granular views, but are also the most likely to have unnecessary functions. Geckoboard warns not to add features just because you can.

The Bottom Line

Once the foundation is established, designing the dashboard will be a more definitive process than one based on gut feeling. However, chances are the dashboard will still need tweaks here and there for various reasons. Don’t be afraid to make small changes as needed.

Dashboards are great ways to quickly and effectively share company information. But to create one that’s effective, companies must do their homework and figure out the key information it must include before diving in.

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