Ten key elements for effective dashboard design

Learn why focusing on business needs, including current data and key performance metrics, is an effective design strategy for encouraging dashboard usability.

Learn why focusing on business needs, including current data and key performance metrics, is an effective design...

strategy for encouraging dashboard usability.

Dashboards have become the de facto face of performance management applications and are increasingly used in business intelligence (BI). But for every dashboard that effectively displays pertinent business information, there's another that is simply a set of pretty graphics that are not used for any business decision.

Effective design will differentiate the winners from the losers.

There are 10 key elements to designing effective dashboard applications:

1. Involve businesspeople in dashboard design

The businesspeople in the enterprise are your dashboard "customers." As with any product or service, you have to offer them something they need and will use. Many BI or corporate performance management (CPM) projects fail because the businesspeople do not use the dashboards -- they go back to their spreadsheets. In order to encourage dashboard usability, you need to start with the basics: what they have now, what they would need to shift to a new system, and what they ultimately want.

Business involvement is not limited to gathering business requirements and setting priorities. They should also participate in the development, testing, deployment and training phases of your project. Businesspeople need to be involved in the entire dashboard lifecycle to really produce what the business side needs.

2. Use an iterative dashboard design approach

It's a common lament of developers: "I built what the business asked for, but now that they've seen it, they say that it's not what they need!" They fell into the trap of thinking that the businesspeople knew what they wanted before development began and that requirements do not change. This is the risk of using the traditional project development process that many IT groups follow. This approach works when business needs are well defined and static, but that is often not the case with CPM.

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Dashboard development calls for an iterative design approach that involves getting the requirements, prototyping the design (with data), getting business feedback, refining the design and then doing it all over again. The business evolves, and your dashboard needs to evolve, too.

3. Focus on the data in the dashboard

Developing a great-looking dashboard that doesn't have the data which the business is looking for is worthless. IT's prototype with the vendor demo might have looked great, but the excitement wears off when there's no substance behind it. While the dashboard is being developed, make sure someone is focused on getting data to populate it.

4. Include relevant key performance indicators

After getting the data, the next requirement that trips up the usefulness of dashboards is defining relevant or consistent key performance indicators (KPIs). There are two common pitfalls that organizations encounter in this area. First, many organizations get the level of detail needed to define the KPIs and then fail to validate those metrics with executives. The people reporting to that executive may have varying opinions on how to define KPIs, but it is the business decision-maker, i.e., the executive, who really determines how to measure performance. Second, some organizations fail to gather KPI definitions from across the enterprise, so business groups end up debating the numbers. If a dashboard is to be relevant, it needs to be consistent across an enterprise. "A single version of the truth" applies to the data and the KPIs presented in a dashboard.

5. Remember that one size does not fit all

Businesspeople in an enterprise have diverse information needs. Different groups, business processes and management levels need different data, KPIs and analytics from a dashboard. Dashboard designers need to take input and involve businesspeople from many groups to truly meet enterprise demand. Too often, only a few businesspeople are involved in dashboard design and feedback. In some instances, only business power users are consulted. The quickest way to get businesspeople to go back to their spreadsheets instead of using your dashboard is to leave out data relevant for them.

News portals, such as Google News and MSN, recognize that one size does not fit all, so they allow their users to customize what they see. You need to follow this and enable data diversity.

BI dashboards user needs
Dashboard tip: Different users have different needs
Click to enlarge
Image reprinted with permission from BITadvisors, Inc.

6. Use design principles from news organizations

Newspapers and news portals such as CNN and The New York Times follow basic principles in designing their front pages. First, they use a constant template for where they place information, so that every time people look at the paper or website, they know where to find things. Similarly, businesspeople should be able to use any of your dashboards and easily find what they need. Second, graphics and pictures are used to support telling the story and to grab your attention. In the same way, graphs on a dashboard need to grab a businessperson's attention and visually depict the data in a clear, meaningful way.

7. Keep data in the dashboards current

A businessperson can use a dashboard only if the data is current. This does not necessarily mean that the data has to be real-time, but it cannot be out-of-date for whatever action the business is trying to take. Daily, weekly or monthly data may be what is needed, but the dashboard must always feature the current iteration of that data.

8. Allow drill-down capabilities within dashboards

Just as you go from the front page to deeper pages within a news site, a business user often has to drill into the details beyond the data to determine what business action is called for. A report or graph displaying a trend is nice, but what is useful is drilling into the detail to see what is causing the trend and in what area the business user needs to take action.

9. Include actionable information

Performance management applications require a business to monitor, measure and act upon data. The dashboard is only a means to an end; it is the action that produces the results that business is looking for. When designing dashboards and talking to the business users about what they want, you should also ask how the dashboard helps in analyzing information and making decisions. If the dashboard does not help users take action, then it needs to be changed until it does.

Dashboard designers can get caught up in designing reports for the business to view rather than act upon. Too often, dozens or hundreds of reports are produced just because they have always been created, but no one is acting on data in them. A dashboard created without the context of a businessperson doing something with the information is not a dashboard worth developing.

10. Don't include too much

Everyone (except the person who created it) hates the PowerPoint presentation or website that is littered with stuff, has bright colors and has the latest "flashy" gadget. Contrast that visual with the simplicity of the Google homepage. Enough said.


Using dashboards is the most effective method of presenting information to the business to enable performance management and foster effective analytics. Just as paint on a canvas does not make a beautiful painting, simply using dashboard software does not produce an effective tool for business. Incorporating these 10 principles will help you build effective dashboards for your organization.

About the author

Rich ShermanRick Sherman has more than 20 years of business intelligence and data warehousing experience, having worked on dozens of implementations as a director/practice leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers and while managing his own firm. He is the founder of Athena IT Solutions, a Boston-based consulting firm providing DW and BI consulting, training and vendor services. Rick blogs on performance management, DW and BI at The Data Doghouse. You can reach him at [email protected]solutions.com or (617) 835-0546.

In addition to teaching at industry conferences, Sherman offers on-site DW & BI training, which can be customized and teaches public courses in the Boston area. He also teaches data warehousing at Northeastern University's graduate school of engineering.

Don't miss the other installments in this dashboard guide
How to get started with dashboards
10 key elements for effective dashboard designs
Executive dashboards and data visualization trends and future outlook
Working with dashboard editors for streamlining and increased user adoption
Real-life examples of effective dashboard design
How to create effective dashboards and scorecards

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