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How to Design Effective Dashboard Displays

by Wayne EckersonThursday, February 17, 2011

Create a Prototype

Once you have gathered all the information requirements and defi ned the metrics and targets, you are ready to design the look and feel of the performance dashboard. The best way to get the process going is to create a prototype that you’ve developed in conjunction with a visual designer or based on knowledge you’ve gained from reading selected books.

Soliciting Feedback. Then get users’ feedback. But don’t ask questions like “Do you like how this looks?” Rather, have users focus on whether the dashboard makes it easy to find the most important information. For example, ask “Do the items that need attention stand out?” Or “When scanning the revenue section, can you easily detect the trend?” Allow users to tweak the layout and design, but do not let them overhaul it completely (unless it is really poor). Also, do not start with a blank screen or let users create the prototype on their own. They have fixed ways of viewing information, usually limited by what they’ve grown accustomed to seeing and doing in the past.

However, sometimes there is no way around user biases. In one company, executives insisted that the opening scorecard screen look exactly like the paper scorecard they had created during the strategy mapping process. Although this made sense in many ways — the company had published posters of the initial scorecard and hung them in the hallways throughout the organization — it forced the team to create a custom solution, which both the business users and technical team did not want to do.

How Much Data? The prototype should contain a modicum of real user data. Perhaps it’s only a row or two, but it should be enough to lend the dashboard an air of reality and give users a sense of ownership of the prototype and project. Meanwhile, a subset of the development team should be working on a parallel track, sourcing and preparing data that was defined in the requirements - gathering session. Working on the back and front ends of the dashboard simultaneously accelerates deployment and brings to the surface problems that might derail the project if development is done sequentially.

For instance, the prototyping sessions might reveal that a particular dimension or attribute is no longer needed and that new dimensions or fi elds have to be added. This knowledge can save the back-end team considerable time if it hasn’t already sourced the data.

Employ Usability Labs

Fine-tuning. Once the prototype is finalized and populated with data, then you need to test the dashboard display in a real-life setting. In the best of all worlds, your company has a usability lab that enables you to observe workers using the performance dashboard in a laboratory setting. Usability labs employ cameras and recorders to document users’ hand, eye, and body movements and record their verbal comments. The labs also interview users to get their reaction to the application. Ultimately, the labs help determine how intuitive an application is and where users get hung up in the visual interface. They can rescue poorly designed dashboards from oblivion but also polish well-designed dashboards to make them even more accessible and usable.

Says an IT director at a fi nancial services company: We used [our company’s] usability lab twice.

We went initially to get advice about how to design the interface and get the dashboard up and running. Then we went a few months after our dashboard went live to test it with real users. Some of the advice involved making small cosmetic changes, such as moving some icons and cleaning up the layout. But other advice gave us a better understanding of how the system behaves from the perspective of business users, where they find it confusing. We learned that people had difficulty drilling down into our data using parameterized drop-down lists. So now we’re trying to address these issues in subsequent upgrades.

Do It Yourself. If your company doesn’t have a formal usability lab, don’t despair. You can create an informal lab on your own and still glean a lot of valuable insights. Simply recruit a handful of people from different segments of your user population to test the dashboard prototype for 15 minutes. The best candidates are ones who are gregarious and can provide a running commentary of what they see and experience.

When you put these people in front of a screen, most immediately will begin examining the data and interacting with the dashboard. Ask them to verbalize everything they do, think, or experience. Just in case, have a few tasks for them to perform based on their role. For example, ask an executive to print the current view or export to Excel, a manager to fi lter the data, and power users to calculate a new column and change chart types. Take copious notes or record the session and transcribe the dialogue later.

Once the session is fi nished, talk with the test subjects and get them to summarize their experiences, identifying what they liked and didn’t like and where they got confused or lost. Once you conduct several sessions, you ’ ll identify several things that you can do to tweak the visual display to improve its usability.


Like key performance indicators (KPIs), a dashboard display is never fi nished. Even with prototypes and usability testing, you are not likely to build the perfect display the first time. In addition, user preferences and requirements change over time, which will force a rewrite, and you’ll devise new ways to visualize data after watching how users interact with the dashboard or examining dashboards at other companies. After a while, you’ll need to redesign the dashboard display to keep it relevant, fresh, and attractive.

“Designs are iterative,” says John Rome, associate vice president at Arizona State University. “We keep dreaming up new ways to visualize data to enhance adoption and usage.” Rome spent considerable time learning the basics of visual design and now employs a staff member who has a visual design background. They’ve redesigned the look and feel of several dashboards in the past several years.

Guidelines for Creating Displays

First impressions make a big difference, today more than ever. In our busy, fast-paced lives, if something does not catch our eye immediately and drawus in, we ignore it and move to something else. For this reason, it is imperative to spend time and effort designing the initial screen of a performance dashboard. This view conveys the breadth, depth, and usability of the entire performance dashboard. If it does not resonate with users or portray the right information, they may not use it, or may use it only begrudgingly.

Less Is More.

However, this does not mean that we need to apply painterly touches or create a visual masterpiece. The art of visual design is working sparsely, making sure that every element and figure on the screen is there for a purpose. Visual designers are ruthless in stripping out colors, shapes, images, or decorations that distract users or do not convey vital information.

Although few of us have training as artists or visual designers, there are easy things we can do to enhance the visual appeal and usability of the dashboard and scorecard screens we create. General guidelines for creating dashboard displays that jump out and grab users rather than force them to study a display to discern important facts are presented next.

Display Information on a Single Screen

The first and toughest goal of a dashboard designer is to squeeze relevant information onto a single screen. Users should not have to scroll down or across a screen to view critical data. That is too much work when all users want to do is glance at the screen to monitor what is going on.

Out of Sight. Similarly, users should not have to click on a radio button to compare data that should be logically grouped together on a single display. All information needed to make an immediate assessment should be instantaneously viewable. Data that are out of sight are out of mind.

Few writes:

The fundamental challenge of dashboard design is to display all the required information on a single screen, clearly and without distraction, in a manner that can be assimilated quickly. If this objective is hard to meet in practice, it is because dashboards often require a dense display of information. You must pack a lot of information into a very limited space, and the entire display must fit on a single screen, without clutter. This is a tall order that requires a specifi c set of design principles.3

Top-level Display. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the entire performance dashboard should consist of a single page of information. A good dashboard summarizes all relevant information on a top-level display so users can monitor performance at a glance. But then, if desired, users can navigate to detailed data or related views with a single click to explore underlying causes of problems or issues surfaced in the monitoring layer.

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