Getting information in a timely, easy to understand way is not only expected by business professionals, it is necessary for businesses to stay competitive. Dashboards allow a user to get needed information at a glance. Stephen Few, a data visualization expert, defines a dashboard as, “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”. The design of a dashboard can either help facilitate data-driven decision making or hinder it, but getting the design right can be tricky.
There are a lot of tools that you can use for dashboarding these days, with some being open-source and free. Some tools allow the user power to customize their dashboard by arranging elements in a manner that best suits their needs, while others require a developer to design and change all elements. Power BI by Microsoft is quickly gaining in popularity for SQL based data, particularly as they have a free user level. Tableau can produce excellent visualizations and has great customization, but tends to be picky as to the data format fed into the tool. There are several tools that allow you to program a dashboard in Java, but require a developer for any future changes. In all cases, you should work closely with the DBA and/or BI developer to ensure the data fed into the dashboard has the correct structure for the tool, allowing you to fully use the features and accurately represent the data. Also, ensure your data is complete and correct or your dashboard will not give you the desired accurate measures.
When starting a dashboarding project, it is necessary to collect the requirements from business owners. It is also key to define who the user group is and if only one dashboard is being built, or one per business area. Avoid creating dashboards for each individual, but separate dashboards for separate business units can allow that unit to see the data that is most pertinent to that group. Try to understand what data the business owners use to make daily decisions. Talk to several of the users in order to get a full picture of how they might use data to assist in their work. A data visualization expert should put together the “how” of the dashboard, while users and business owners should define the “what”.
Once you have collected what information is used by users for decision making, divide the data elements into those that will go into the dashboard, and which will go into a report or drill-down area. When possible, use software that has drill-down capabilities, or allowing the user to click on a data element to pull up further details. This greatly expands the detail you can include in your dashboard while keeping the main dashboard simplistic and free of clutter.
You should strive to have less than 10 data elements in the dashboard. The dashboard data should change often, making it useful to see that piece of data on a daily basis. If the data element changes only once per month or less frequently, or changes inconsequential amounts within long periods of time, it is better put into a report than on a dashboard. Also, if data is complicated and not easily put into a single data visualization, it is best to reserve this data for reports or drill-down areas of a dashboard.
Design the dashboard for simplicity and user-friendliness. There should be zero learning curve, and users should immediately understand the data they are viewing. Context should be given for any data element where it is not well known or obvious. For instance, if a percentage is given as a figure on the dashboard, indicate visually or with additional numbers/text whether this number is good or bad, better or worse (i.e. than last month or the average).
Keep visualizations to those that are easy to understand. There is a great deal of science behind the perception of data visualizations and there is a reason you see particular visualizations frequently. Just because there is a new, fancy chart available in the tool of your choice doesn’t mean you should use it, particularly in a dashboard. Save complex visualizations for reports that a user will have time to study. Avoid pie charts and doughnut charts, as these are almost always the wrong choice for conveying data. Bar charts, line graphs, maps, gauges, and simple tables generally make the best visualizations on a dashboard. Arrows, spark lines, and bullet charts can give your text charts a visual element allows for easy understanding of directionality.
Try to use a logical order to the data elements, particularly if there are any time-dependent elements. If two visualizations relate to one another, put them next to each other. If you have visualizations relating to one-month, one year, and ten year performance, put them in the order you would expect to read them in, left to right, top to bottom. Use different colours or styles to allow the user to immediately find the data element they are looking for, once they are familiar with the dashboard. Do not try to make the dashboard a piece of art. Art is something you want the user to stare at for long periods of time, while you want users of a dashboard to view it a few seconds and come away with data useful for their decision making.
Review the dashboard periodically. As business processes and needs change, so too should the dashboard. Check in with users to see if any element is no longer useful, or if there additional items needed. A seasonal element may be appropriate at certain times of the year, such as a year-end revenue visualization. Once the year-end has past, this element may not be needed for another 11 months, so should not be kept on the dashboard.
18 Best Practices for Dashboards
- Choose a tool that is easy to update and fits your data structure, or fit your data structure to the tool.
- Choose a tool that allows your users the amount of desired control for customization.
- Ensure your data is complete and correct.
- Create a view most pertinent to a particular group. Don’t create a separate dashboard for each person.
- Data elements should be those that promote decisions and action, not just nice-to-know.
- Data should change often enough to be useful. Data that rarely changes should be saved for reports.
- The data elements chosen should be those that drive action, rather than those that satisfy curiosity.
- Simplicity is key. Keep the dashboard to less than 10 data elements.
- Keep the dashboard to a size that fits on one screen. Drill down reports can be used for further details.
- Dashboards are not pieces of art. In fact, the most effective dashboards are those looked at for the least amount of time.
- Graphs should be those that are proven to effectively convey data and can be properly perceived by users.
- Don’t use pie graphs (or doughnuts). Though related to number 11, it bears repeating as some need to be broken of this bad habit.
- Use a logical order to the elements.
- Use a cohesive style throughout, but vary the elements enough that the user can quickly find what they’re looking for.
- Use colours to highlight certain areas and allow the user to quickly find elements.
- Define the framework of the measures. Is the measure up/down from previous or good/bad, etc.?
- Ensure the learning curve for users is zero.
- Review the dashboard elements periodically and update as business needs change.