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How to Design Effective Dashboard Displays

by Wayne EckersonThursday, February 17, 2011

Dashboard Insight would like to thank Wayne Eckerson and Wiley Publishing for allowing us to publish this excerpt from his latest book, Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, And Managing Your Business, Second Edition.


Good Design. This chapter examines how to design the “look and feel” of a performance dashboard so that it is easy to use and visually appealing. The visual interface — what users can see and do on the screens — can determine whether a performance dashboard succeeds or fails.

Visual design is important because business users don’t have to use a performance dashboard; in most companies, it is not a requirement for doing their jobs. They will use it if it makes them more productive and effective, but they will shun it if it is not intuitive or consumes too much time and effort for the value it delivers. They will go elsewhere to obtain the information they need, or they will rely on intuition and gut feel alone.

Good dashboard design instantly connects users to actionable and relevant data. Stephen Few, a visualization expert and author, writes: “The dashboard does its primary job if it tells you with no more than a glance that you should act. It serves you superbly if it directly opens the door to any additional information that you need to take that action.” 1

Challenges. Creating dashboard displays is challenging, and few report designers — the people who create dashboard screens in most organizations — have sufficient background in visual design to do a good job. Most rely on their own visual sensibilities combined with feedback from business users, who also lack knowledge of basic visual design principles. The process of mocking up dashboard screens is often a case of the blind leading the blind.

The result is a visual interface that is cluttered and unnecessarily complicated, forcing users to work too hard to discern pertinent facts and navigate to relevant underlying detail. Unless business users can consume dashboards at a glance — or in “big visual gulps,” as Few says — they will abandon dashboards and revert to former, less than optimal habits of consuming information.

Despite the challenges, designing dashboard displays is rewarding. It is the fun part about building performance dashboards, the icing on the cake, if you will. Dashboard design is where all the elements of a performance dashboard system come together to address business issues. It’s like the grand finale when systems architects finally see the fruits of their efforts and business users get excited about using the new system.

Before You Start

Although it’s tempting to jump right into selecting layout designs, chart types, color palettes, fonts, and navigation controls, there are a number of things that you should keep in mind before beginning the design process. Some of these are fundamental principles of information delivery that bear repeating; others are overlooked steps in a dashboard project plan.

Focus on Requirements and Data First

The quickest way for a magazine to boost sales is to put a picture of a pretty woman on the cover. The same holds true for performance dashboards. A surefire way to get funding for a dashboard project is to show executives a mock-up of a dashboard screen with their metrics wrapped in appealing graphics. However, selling and delivering a performance dashboard are two different things.

Says a performance manager at a major telecommunications company:

It’s often too easy to create a fancy - looking dashboard and get executive support. But if you don’t have real data to put into it, it's really just smoke and mirrors. It’s important that you do the necessary work to get to the point where the glitz is functioning properly. That includes defining metrics and targets as well as getting systems data. If we had gone in with glitz and glamour before building the infrastructure, we would have set unrealistic expectations and wouldn’t be as far along as we are now.

Requirements. When gathering requirements for a performance dashboard project, it is critical to focus on what information users need and how they plan to use the dashboard rather than how they want to view the data it contains. Focusing on screen layouts too early in the process restricts your ability to design an optimal visual interface; it is best to show a screen mock-up at the end of the requirements process, once developers have a solid understanding of the information that users need to do their jobs. For example, the nine-step dashboard design workshop described in Chapter 11 produces a requirements document written in English that defines goals, questions, metrics, targets, drill paths, and data, among other things, that developers need to build a dashboard prototype.

Data. It’s also critical to ensure that you populate the dashboard with high-quality data that business users trust. Business users always underestimate the time and money required to source, clean, and integrate data for dashboard and BI projects. Often data acquisition consumes 80 percent of the work involved in delivering a performance dashboard. This is especially true if the dashboard does not source most of its content from a data warehouse that adheres to a rigorous data cleansing and validation process.

Prototypes. Without a strong data foundation, a performance dashboard is just a pretty face without much personality: intriguing at first, but quickly dissatisfying. Even a dashboard prototype should incorporate accurate data. Otherwise, you’ll be on the defensive during most of the prototyping session, explaining the origins of your data and why it’s not accurate. And you’ll have missed a brilliant opportunity to gain traction for the new system. I’ve known cases where business managers hurriedly began making calls to fix operational problems that they spotted while providing feedback on a dashboard prototype.

Know Your Users

It is one thing to build a visually elegant performance dashboard, and it is another to get business users to use it. As discussed in Chapter 2 , it is important to segment users by their technical and analytical capabilities and preferences. Just because one segment of users fi nds the screens easy to use does not mean that all segments will. To encourage adoption and use, performance dashboards need to be tailored to the needs of each target group.

For example, some executives today prefer to receive reports via e-mail, while others like to print out various screens, and some desire offline electronic versions that they can examine while traveling. To address these types of requirements, one BI team trained each executive’s administrator to use the dashboard and generate output in the executive’s preferred method. “We told executives, don’t worry about accessing the tool, we'll train your assistants to get you the information for you,” the team lead said. At another company, the project leader spent 30 to 60 minutes with each executive describing how to use the tool. The project lead also configured the dashboard screen to match the executive’s preferences to ensure adoption and buy-in for the project from the top.

Executives may need extra hand holding, but power users need additional leeway. Power users usually are not satisfied with functionality geared to casual users, who primarily want to monitor data, not analyze it. Although well-designed dashboards let users drill from high-level views to detailed transactions, the pathways are fairly structured and circumscribed. To satisfy power users who want unlimited freedom to explore, it is often necessary to let them access data and information directly using whatever tools they want. These could be online analytical processing, visual analysis, or ad hoc reporting tools.

Enlist Visual Designers

Report developers who design dashboards tend to overcomplicate the display, using too many colors, borders, frames, and images. As developers, they take pride in understanding and exploiting all the features and functions in a software tool. Unfortunately, this backfires with dashboard displays.

When left to their own devices, report developers overemphasize the design at the expense of the data. This creates cluttered, overdecorated displays where everything competes for attention and thus nothing of importance gets communicated. “Focus should always be placed on the information itself, not on the design of the dashboard, which should almost be invisible,” writes Few.2

Interior Decorating. Designing dashboards is not unlike decorating a room in your house. Most homeowners (like me!) design as they purchase objects to place in the room. When we buy a rug, we select the nicest rug; when we pick out wall paint, we pick the most appealing color; when we select chairs and tables, we fi nd the most elegant ones we can afford. Although each individual selection makes sense, collectively the objects clash or compete for attention.

Smart homeowners (with enough cash) hire interior decorators who filter your tastes and preferences through principles of interior design to create a look and feel in which every element works together harmoniously and emphasizes what really matters. For example, the design might highlight an elegant antique coffee table by selecting carpets, couches, and curtains that complement its color and texture.

Recruiting Design Experts. Thus, to optimize the design of your performance dashboard, it is important to get somebody on the team who is trained in the visual design of quantitative information displays. Although few teams can afford to hire someone full time, you may be able to hire a consultant to provide initial guidance or find someone in the marketing department with appropriate training. Ideally, the person can educate the team about basic design principles and provide feedback on initial displays.

But be careful: Don’t entrust the design to someone who is a run-of-the-mill graphic artist or who is not familiar with user requirements, business processes, and corporate data. For example, a Web designer will give you a professional-looking display but probably will garble the data — he or she might use the wrong type of chart to display data or group metrics in nonsensical ways or apply the wrong filters for different user roles. And any designer needs to take the time up front to understand user requirements and the nature of the data that will populate the displays.

Partnership. Ideally, report developers and design experts work together to create an effective series of dashboard displays, complementing their knowledge and expertise. This partnership can serve as a professional bulwark against the misguided wishes of business users. Although it’s important to listen to and incorporate user preferences, ultimately the look and feel of a dashboard should remain in the hands of design professionals. For example, most companies today entrust the design of their Web sites and marketing collateral to professional media designers who work in concert with members of the marketing team. They don’t let the chief executive dictate the Web design (or they should't anyway).

Books. There are many good books available today to help dashboard teams bone up on visual design techniques. Stephen Few’s Information Dashboard Design book is a must-read. He delves into greater detail in two other books, Show Me the Numbers and Now You See It . Few and others have drawn inspiration from Edward R. Tufte, whose book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is considered a classic in the field. Tufte has also written Visual Explanations, Envisioning Information, and Beautiful Evidence.

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