The Ten Commandments of Dashboard Building

1. Thou shalt tell a story with thy data

Great analytics tell a story. The data speaks to the consumer, informing them, and empowering them to make smart decisions.

Here are five tips from Cole Knaflic (Story Telling With Data):

  1. Craft a story with clear beginning (plot), middle (twists), and end (call to action).
  2. Leverage conflict and tension to grab and maintain your audience’s attention.
  3. Consider the order and manner of your narrative.
  4. Utilize the power of repetition to help your stories stick.
  5. Employ tactics like vertical and horizontal logic, reverse storyboarding, and seeking a fresh perspective to ensure that your story comes across clearly in your communication.

Build a clear understanding of who you are communicating to, what you need them to know or do, how you will communicate to them, and what data you have to back up your case. Employ concepts like the 3-minute story, the Big Idea, and storyboarding to articulate your story and plan the desired content and flow.

2. Thou shalt not overload thy dashboard

It is often tempting to load up a dashboard with lots of important charts and metrics. This is especially true when users are given free reign regarding content choice! But:

— Too much data on one screen detracts from the story.

— A busy, cluttered dashboard causes confusion and hinders comprehension.

In my opinion, the user should be able to get a basic understanding of the data in about twenty seconds.

Great analytics are simple. Your goal is to inform, not impress!

Good design tells a story with data that does not become overwhelming with way too much information, clutter or noise. Limit content to fit entirely on one screen. In many cases, it might be wise to:

  • Break up the dash board into multiple pages.
  • Add toggles that replace two or three charts with one.
  • Simply remove charts that are not a top priority, or add buttons that link to lenses.
  • Be ruthless about what stays and what goes!
  • Antoine de Saint-Exupery famously said, “You know you’ve achieved perfection, not when you have nothing more to add, but when you have nothing to take away” .
  • Identify elements that don’t add informative value and remove them from your visuals. Leverage the Gestalt principles to understand how people see and identify candidates for elimination, including:
    • The Law of Closure
    • The Law of Common Region
    • The Law of Proximity
    • The Law of Similarity
    • The Law of Symmetry
  • Use contrast strategically. Employ alignment of elements and maintain white space to help make the interpretation of your visuals a comfortable experience for your audience.
  • Remember: “A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives that has been consolidated on a single computer screen so it can be monitored at a glance.”(Stephen Few)

3. Thou shalt combine form and function

Is form important? Yes. Is function important? Yes. A great analytics dashboard will combine both form and function to produce a result that is practically useful and aesthetically pleasing.

We live in a day where people are extremely visual in their consumption of information. We are bombarded daily with visuals — signs, icons, videos, images, etc. Therefore, if your data analytics are poorly designed, they will not have the desired impact.

How do you combine form and function?

  1. Be smart with colour. The use of colour should always be intentional and strategic; use colour sparingly and strategically to highlight the important parts of your visual; use it consistently; be thoughtful of the tone that colours convey; when appropriate, leverage brand colours.
  2. Pay attention to alignment. Arrange elements on the page to create clean vertical and horizontal lines to establish a sense of unity and cohesion.
  3. Leverage white space. Preserve margins; don’t stretch your graphics to fill the space, or add things simply because you have extra space.
  4. Provide visual cues for how to interact with your communication. Highlight the important stuff, eliminate distractions, and create a visual hierarchy of information.
  5. Make your designs accessible by not overcomplicating and leveraging text to label and explain. Increase your audience’s tolerance of design issues by making your visuals aesthetically pleasing. Work to gain audience acceptance of your visual designs.

4. Thou shalt always make thy analytics actionable

“A dashboard must be able to quickly point out that something deserves attention and might require action.” (Stephen Few)

Analytics are only as good as the insights they create and the decisions they facilitate. Therefore, the path from visual to action must be short, simple, intuitive, and easy.

People want “analytics”, but what they really need to do their job are insights — data visualisation that facilitates comprehension, understanding, discernment and judgment.

Your dashboard should be user-friendly and constitute a basic aid in the decision-making process. Users must simply enjoy using it and consider it an essential tool.

“Two of the greatest challenges in dashboard design are to make the most important data stand out from the rest, and to arrange what is often a great deal of disparate information in a way that makes sense, gives it meaning, and supports its efficient perception.” (Stephen Few)

Embed event-driven business intelligence functions into business processes to reduce the need for a physical action or increase the timeliness of a response.

5. Thou shalt understand the consumers of thy analytics

Get into your audience’s head. Dig deep into how your audience wins and help them win more! Understanding the business users and how they will consume your analytics is a non-negotiable step in the design process.

Be an expert at asking the right questions, such as:

  1. How will the dashboard will be used for next step actions by the user?
  2. What information does the reader need to be successful?
  3. How much detail does the reader need?
  4. What action can be taken and how?
  5. How are exceptions or insights that need action highlighted?
  6. What learned or cultural assumptions may affect design choices?
  7. What do colours mean to the user and can they be visually interpreted?
  8. Which icons are familiar to the consumer?

Define the various personas who will consume the analytics and design your dashboards accordingly. When it comes to analytics, one size does not fit all!

6. Thou shalt make thy dashboard easy and intuitive to use

If a dashboard is complicated, hard to use, and confusing to navigate, it will not get used. On the other hand, a well-designed dashboard is self-explanatory; it does not require someone to guide the user experience, and people will be quick to use it.

A great dashboard is intuitive — when a user sees it, they know exactly what to do. Intuitive design is invisible. Intuitive designs direct people’s attention to tasks that are important. In the end, an intuitive design focuses on experience.

Some features of a dashbard that influence intuitiveness are:

  • Flow — A well-designed flow maps well to how users want to navigate within the analytics app. Once you have a list of dashboards, you need to think about how they all fit together. Bad flow results in a confused, frustrated user, and that kills adoption.
  • Charts — Other than using the appropriate chart type for the metric in question (see point 9 below), charts should be easy to understand and digest.
  • Drill Paths — As you define your layouts and charts, it is important to think how the end user will interact with dashboards to act on the insights they see. An effective drill path aligns with the target user’s mental models.
  • Familiarity — The above aspect of intuitive design should be aligned, as much as possible, to familiar design cues from their present environment — for example, the internet browser or operating system that they use.

“Focus attention where you want it. Employ the power of preattentive attributes like color, size, and position to signal what’s important. Use these strategic attributes to draw attention to where you want your audience to look and guide your audience through your visual. Evaluate the effectiveness of preattentive attributes in your visual by applying the “where are your eyes drawn?” test.” (Colek Knaflic)

7. Thou shalt not distract the user

One of the cardinal sins of dashboard design is providing analytics and visualitions that draw attention to the design and not to the data. Examples of this include:

  1. Excessive, complex or perplexing use of colour
  2. Confusing flow
  3. Unnecessary dashboard elements
  4. Distracting lines, borders boxes, etc.
  5. A lack of strategic white space
  6. Drawing attention to metrics or charts that are secondary or complementary
  7. Background images
  8. Pie or donut charts that have more than 5 segments/dimensions

8. Thou shalt provide benchmarks and comparisons

To be meaningful and useful, metrics must be understood in context, which often comes in the forms of comparisons and benchmarks.

Examples of useful benchmarks and comparisons include:

  1. The same metric from the previous period/s. E.g. Compare this QTD to last QTD.
  2. The average of this metric over time. E.g. How does this month compare to the average monthly figure for the last twelve months?
  3. The same metric at the same point in the past. E.g. How much did we sell of this product month last year?
  4. Someone else’s values for the same metric. E.g. What did the main competitor score for the same period?
  5. The present target for this metric. E.g. How are sales doing compared to target for this financial year?
  6. A separate but related metric. E.g. Amount and count of deals won over a period.

9. Thou shalt use appropriate visualisations

Our brains are wired to interpret visual representations of data more efficiently than a list of numbers. However, to ensure that these visualizations display the right insights, you need to choose charts wisely. Start by asking, “What will provide the most important insights for a particular situation?”

As this is a source of frequent debate, and as there are no real hard-and-fast rules, this will get you started:

Resource: Choosing a good chart

10. Thou shalt never subordinate the business application

Analytics is all about a business result. It is never about pretty charts or clever science. Data analysis and visualization must lead to accurate insights that generate meaningful action.

I remember one time that I designed a dashboard for a client in financial services. I was very pleased with my work — it was a beautiful dashboard! However, when I shared it with the client, he was not impressed. Why? The dashboard did not solve his problems, or answer his questions. It was not focused upon the right business outcome. Needless to say, I redesigned the analytics, and ended up with a happy client…

How do you ensure that the business result remains constantly front-of-mind?

  1. Daily review the business problem you set out to solve
  2. Review draft designs of the dashboard with users and get feedback
  3. Put yourself in the shoes of the users and ask yourself if it answers your questions about business data, processes, and results
  4. Regularly review your discovery notes and make sure that the design aligns with the business requirements
  5. Be brutally honest with yourself — is this just a pretty design, or does it tell a story that is insightful and actionable?

In closing, remember the K.I.S.S. principle:

“You have to really know your stuff—know what the most important pieces are as well as what isn’t essential in the most stripped-down version. While it sounds easy, being concise is often more challenging than being verbose. Mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal recognized this in his native French, with a statement that translates roughly to ‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.’ (a sentiment often attributed to Mark Twain).” (Cole Knaflic)

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