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Spur ReplyMay 16, 2020 12:02:11 AM7 min read

How to Design a Dashboard That’s Useful and Actionable

Advanced data science and analytics capabilities are becoming increasingly accessible through business intelligence and data visualization tools. This makes it easy to get caught up in all the feature-rich bells and whistles of the tool and lose track of the essentials of good data delivery. Often, the difference between a dashboard that drives critical insights and one that ends up lost and forgotten is a strong focus on business needs and context.

The framework and process used to design a dashboard is even more important than the technology behind it. In this three-part series, we'll focus on a proven methodology for dashboard design, evaluation, and reporting. 

Part 1: This blog will focus on how to design a dashboard
Part 2: How to evaluate the effectiveness of your dashboard through key questions
Part 3: How to translate the dashboard data into insights 

When planning a dashboard, consider these three crucial steps: identifying the audience, determining the views, and choosing the metrics. 

1. Identify the dashboard audience

The first step in building a good tool is determining who the audience is and what they care about. Whether the dashboard will be used by the senior executives in your company or the junior analysts that report to you, ask the following questions to make your dashboard as relevant as possible:

  • Which distinct audience(s) needs to drive what business decisions?
  • What specific pain points do they have related to the topic?
  • What information do they need and what noise could they do without?
  • How much overlap exists in the needs of the various members of your audience and how much is unique?
  • Which audience(s) should I prioritize?

It’s a basic step — but it’s critical to success. Many technically impressive dashboards have failed because their creators didn’t keep in mind what their audiences truly needed to see.

2. Determine the views

Creating views is about identifying the 2-4 topics that summarize the information the audience needs.

If you have just one audience, this is usually simple. If you have multiple audiences, it may take a bit more work. In either case, consider their priorities and pain points to look for the broader areas of the business that will help address their needs.

Views are just a chain of information that connect to tell the broader story

For example, if you’re creating a dashboard for the CEO, there may be four separate views she needs to run the company: HR, operations, marketing, and sales. Alternatively, if you’re building a dashboard for a sales executive, it may be sales rep productivity, customer buying behavior, and all-up sales. By identifying these topics, you’ll develop a picture that tells a cohesive story and avoid simply coming up with a set of disparate metrics.

In addition to creating views based on the dashboard audience's needs, it's equally important to adhere to data visualization best practices. Selecting appropriate chart types, designing for clarity and simplicity, and considering accessibility are all important aspects of creating a user-friendly dashboard. By following best practices, organizations will enhance the user experience and facilitate clearer interpretation of data.

3. Choose the dashboard metrics

Determining which metrics to use is about telling a connected story, not simply throwing data on a page.

In order to design an actionable dashboard, it's crucial to consider not only the design of the dashboard but also the underlying data sources and integration. Designing a dashboard without a clear understanding of where the data comes from and how it's integrated can lead to inaccuracies and inconsistencies that undermine its usefulness. Therefore, as part of the dashboard design framework, it's essential to thoroughly assess the data sources, ensure data quality, and establish robust integration processes to maintain the integrity of the dashboard.

This isn’t always an easy step, so don’t worry if you struggle a bit. It’s common to come up with way more metrics than you should actually report on. As with any good brainstorming activity, come up with as many ideas as you can, then work to narrow the list.

Out of the steps we’ve covered, this one is the most difficult and the important. To make this process a bit easier, we leverage a methodology called the “4 Ts”:

  • Totals: Totals are sums of individual pieces of information. Frequently it is the total number of employees or the total revenue; it is the aggregate of the data. For instance, "The total revenue in the US is $900 million." 
  • Trends: Trends are patterns that suggest general movement and tendencies. It is commonly a rate of change over time, which can be a growth rate or an average rate of occurrence. Trends can also lead to a trigger, such as a downward trend in sales leading to the issuance of new product sales incentives. For instance, “LatAm revenue is growing at an average rate of 11% YoY in the last three years and 14% QoQ this year”
  • Triggers: Triggers are reactions to defined business thresholds being met. An example we often see is when a salesperson hits a certain number, things like bonuses or additional benefits are triggered. For instance, “The SoCal sales team hit their quota in Q3, so in Q4 an additional 0.5% bonus kicks in”
  • Targets: Targets are goals. Often, a target may be a total, trend, or trigger. It could be the number of customers sold to (total), a mix of what is sold (trend), or even the number of times an action is completed (Trigger). For instance, “While Germany is growing at 7%, they are at risk of missing their target revenue number of $300 million.”

Once you have a good list of potential metrics, Consider the following questions on each proposed data point:

  • Is it realistic? Is it possible to get the data and be able to utilize it with the desired audience(s)?
  • Is it accurate? Is it based on reliable information, or is there a potential for large gaps or errors?
  • Is it measuring what we think it measures? Is the metric truly related to the point you’re making, or is it only circumstantially or tangentially connected?
  • Does it contribute to the story or decision making? If the target audience member didn’t have this information, would it change their action, or is it perhaps a more granular point that is interesting, but not critical?

Once your initial metrics are defined, consider how you will incorporate performance monitoring and alerts, essential components of a robust dashboard design framework. Monitoring key metrics in real-time and setting up alerts for significant changes or deviations from expected values leads to proactive decision-making and timely intervention when necessary. 

Putting it all together

Once the audience, views, and metrics are defined, the goal is to step back and look at everything holistically. If you’re building a single executive scorecard, the goal should be to get things down to about 4 views that have 12-16 metrics total. If you’re building a more robust set of dashboards, the goal is to understand how to group views and metrics into logical categories that support different audiences or lines of inquiry.

If feasible, interactivity and drill-down capabilities can also play a vital role in creating an actionable dashboard. Allowing users to interact with the data, explore specific trends or data points, and dive deeper into the underlying information can empower them to go a step further with their own analysis and derive more meaningful insights. Incorporating interactive features into the dashboard design will not only enhance user engagement but also enable more nuanced analysis and exploration of the data.

You should view dashboard design as an iterative process that involves ongoing feedback and improvement. Gathering feedback from users and stakeholders, monitoring usage patterns, and evaluating the effectiveness of the chosen dashboard metrics are all noteworthy steps that will help refine and optimize the design over time. By continuously iterating based on user needs and evolving business requirements, organizations can ensure that their dashboards remain relevant and actionable.

At the end of this process of blending your business knowledge with the technical expertise of your dashboard architects, you’ll be well on your way to creating real insight for your audience. Users will walk away with a deeper understanding of their business and be armed with the information they need to drive the business forward. They’ll also want to come back for more.

Stay tuned for the next blogs in this series: 

Part 2: How to evaluate the effectiveness of your dashboard through key questions
Part 3: How to translate the dashboard data into insights 



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