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Personal Finance Dashboard: Best Dashboard of 2011

by Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang, Research Director, Dashboard InsightTuesday, December 20, 2011

Dashboard Requirements

Before I address the design critique, the background to this dashboard was that Sheila, a 25-year-old professional, hired a dashboard designer to help monitor her expenses and savings and ensure she reached her personal finance goals. Her main goals were to:

  • Retire by the time she was 55, which she projected she would need about $2 million to accomplish
  • Make sure she wasn’t overspending and spot any expenditures she should be wary of

You can read the details of the requirements here.

Dashboard Critique

It was difficult to choose the Best Dashboard of 2011. There were three strong candidates, but Mike Moore of West Notifications Group beat them out using Tableau. Mike chose Tableau because he believes he can build beautiful dashboards fast with it! Although Mike used Tableau to build the winning entry, he won because of his data visualization and dashboard design skills.

Click image to enlarge.

Here’s why he won:

  • Density of information
  • Use of color
  • Choice of metrics to visualize

Density of Information

There are two camps when it comes to the amount of information that should be displayed on a dashboard. Some believe you should cram as much information as you can into one screen, while others prefer to keep it as minimal as possible but still informative.

This may sound like a cop-out, but for me, the right approach depends on the situation. For data analysts or those comfortable with working with lots of information, the former approach should be the goal. For those who are not analysts, the latter would be more appropriate. In the case of the contest, Sheila is not an analyst, so I would lean toward keeping the metrics as minimal as possible. Mike did a good job showing just enough so that Sheila could see her spending habits and savings without overwhelming her with detail.

Use of Color

Mike did well in limiting the use of color to only when he needed to highlight key areas of the dashboard. He used red to highlight metrics such as expenses that were over-budget and negative balances. For any other type of information, he used tones of gray. However, he could have used any type of contrasting color such as shades of blue. As an aside, I would tone down the black bars because they pop too much.

One possible controversial area is the coloring of the area chart that is similar to that of a sparkline to show the months that went over-budget. It could be argued that the coloring is unnecessary if the trend only showed the amount that went over-budget, but I liked the way the red brought attention to the spikes in the trend.

Choice of Metrics to Visualize

The contest was not about choosing the right metrics. However, given the quality of the submissions, I used the metrics chosen as the final qualifying criteria. Mike’s dashboard listed a summary of all major expenses and assets so the dashboard shows, at a glance, Sheila’s account balances, mortgage, and savings.

Enhancing the Dashboard

Overall, Mike’s dashboard was designed very well but there were certain areas that could still be improved, such as:

  • Adding state indicators
  • Removing superfluous elements
  • Replacing a metric

Adding State Indicators

The dashboard uses the color red in the bullet graphs to draw attention to the visualization, but sometimes the bar is too small to see. Placing an indicator beside the bullet graph when the values are performing poorly would eliminate this problem.

Removing Superfluous Elements

Mike originally submitted this as a visual analysis interface, but I suggested he submit it as a dashboard instead. He made a few changes to the overall design but he should have taken out the date selection on the top left as well. If he keeps it, he should use a drop-down list instead with the current month as the default selection.

In addition, I would remove the text labels in the expense breakdown and use a scale instead.

The border on the bars in the savings chart should be removed, as well.

Replacing a Metric

As I mentioned, I liked all the metrics that Mike chose to visualize. However, the breakdown of the credit card and chequing account expenses were redundant. A better use of the space would have been to list action items on how to improve her current financial situation. For example, there could be an action item stating that Sheila needs to increase her savings contributions by X, or one stating that she tone down her dining-out habits by Y, to reach her goal.

Final Thoughts

You may find some of the data on the dashboard inaccurate, which is my fault as I did not do my due diligence on the quality of the data. Outside of that inaccuracy, Mike did a great job building a dashboard that is easy for Sheila to use. What’s neat is this can serve as her portal to access her visualize analysis interface, as well!

About Mike Moore

Mike Moore is a Director of Product Management for West Notifications Group where he is focused on studying market needs for proactive customer communications, business intelligence and customer analytics.  Previously Mike spent five years as an analytics manager at West where he discovered a passion for the data sciences and data visualization.  Mike has over 10 years of automated customer communications experience including data analysis, speech and text analytics, voice user interface (VUI) design, usability analysis, and designing integrated applications that incorporate speech recognition technology.  In addition to his expertise in call automation, Mike also has 8 years of call center experience and has been involved in virtually every aspect of contact center management.

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Damien Lesage said:

Either for the dashboard or the visual analysis interface, I think it would be great if you extend your articles to the top 3. I'm sure there are interesting ideas in other submissions that would help us to design better dashboards.

Congratulations to the winners :)

Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang said:

@Damien - I will be putting up a gallery of the examples in the new year for everyone to see and comment on. I'm contemplating the best way to do that without having to post one per entry. :D In the meantime, I want to hear people's thoughts on the winners, as well!

Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang said:

Correction to the previous post - entries not examples.

Chris Gerrard said:

Mike's dashboard is a pretty good starting point, but there are a few flaws in it, some fairly obvious, some more subtle that only appear when it's put to use.

The most obvious things I noticed from an initial visual inspection are, that the left and center charts in the bottom half are actually quite poor at communicating what appears to be the values of the expenses incurred and paid from two different accounts.

There's not enough room in this comment section to go into the problems, and their solutions, in detail.

I've improved Mike's dashboard, published the improved version to Tableau Public, and document what I did and why at http://betterbi.wordpress.com (apologies for the truncated url, but they get stripped from these comments.

Chris Gerrard said:

With the chance to reflect a little bit, I'm curious about how this dashboards was evaluated. There are very substantial problems with it that actively impede the understanding of the data being presented.

To see what I mean, try to answer these questions:

Quick: Which element appears in both the "Checking Account" (CA) and "Credit Card Account" (CCA) charts?
Shouldn't it be easy to tell?

Quick: Which "Monthly Transaction Summary" (MTS) element appears in neither of the CA or CCA charts?
It should take little more than a glance to find out.
Trick question: all the MTS elements appear in one of the other charts, but it's hard to tell.

Quick: Which is greater, House Expense in CA or Dine Out in CCA?
Hint, the longest one isn't it.

Quick: Which is greater, Interest in CCA or Interest in MTS?
Hint, the longest one isn't it.
If the values are the same, shouldn't the bars have the same dimensions?

Alexander 'Sandy' Chiang said:

@Chris - as I mentioned in my comments, I don't think the break out of the expenses by account were necessary; i.e. it doesn't matter what account Sheila used to spend the money, it matters where she spent the money. By taking out these two visualizations, it makes your points moot.

I viewed your dashboard and I disagree with your use of color. By adding more color to the dashboard, you've made it harder to spot what is important at a glance.

I think your points are valid if those metrics should be on the dashboard, but they should be replaced with my recommendation of listing out action items to help her improve her financial situation. This creates the cause and effect type of dashboards I always recommend to my clients.

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