The Perfect Dashboard: Three Pieces of Information

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I’ve been spending a lot of time lately working on dashboards — different dashboards for different purposes for different clients, with a heavy emphasis on making dashboards that can be efficiently updated. I’m finding that I keep coming back to two key principles:

  • A dashboard, by definition, fits on a single page — this is straight out of Stephen Few’s book Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data; I was skeptical that this was really possible when I first read it, but I’ve increasingly become a believer…with the caveat that there is ancillary data that can be provided with a dashboard as backup/easy drilldowns
  • The dashboard must include logic to dynamically highlight the areas that require the most attention.

The second principle is the focus of this post.

Actionable Metrics

It’s become cliché to observe that data must be converted to information that drives action. I’ve got no argument with that, but, all too often, the people who make this statement would also see this statement as blasphemy:

Most metrics should drive no action most of the time

Any good performance measurement system is based on a structured set of meaningful metrics. Each of those metrics has a target set, either as a hard number, as a comparison to a prior period, as a comparison to some industry measure, or something else.

Here’s the key, though: most of those metrics will likely come in within their target range most of the time! That’s a good thing, because it is rare that a business is equipped to chase more than a handful of issues at once.

A Conceptual (If Not Realistic) Dashboard

At the end of the day, when your user looks at a dashboard, here’s what they really are hoping to get:

Conceptual Dashboard

This is as actionable as it gets:

  • Only the areas that are performing well outside of expectations are shown
  • What’s actually happening is stated in plain English
  • The person viewing the dashboard has a concise list of what he/she needs to start looking into immediately

Will your users ever tell you this is what they’re looking for? No! And, if asked, the reasons why not would include:

  • “I need to see everything that is going on — not just the stuff that is performing outside targets (…because I’m just not comfortable trusting that we designed a dashboard that is good enough to catch all the things that really matter).”
  • “My boss is likely to ask me about her specific pet metric…so I need to have that information at my fingertips, even if it’s not going to drive me to take new action.”
  • “I need to see all of the data so that I can identify patterns and correlations across different aspects of the marketing program.”

Arguing any of these points is an exercise in futility. Between the explosion of data that is available, the fact that not a day passes without a Major Marketing Mind talking about how important it is for us to leverage the wealth of data at our fingertips, and the fact that humans are inherently distrustful of automation until they have seen it working successfully for an extended period of time, all mean that a dashboard, in practice, has to include a decent chunk of information that will not drive any new action.

But the Concept Is Still Useful

I believe the conceptual dashboard above is a useful guiding vision. At the end of the day, we want to provide, and our users want to receive, information that is clear and concise, which the dashboard above certainly is. if we morph the concept above just a little bit, though, we get a dashboard that is only slightly less impactful but heads off all of the concerns listed earlier:

Conceptual Dashboard

Get the idea? The same highlights pop, but additional data is included, and it all still fits on a single page. Obviously, the real dashboard would be one step further diluted from this by presenting actual metrics — numbers, sparklines, etc. But, by working hard to keep all of the on-target data as muted as possible, some clever use of bold and color through conditional formatting can still make what’s important pop.

Parting Thoughts and Clarifications

Any dashboard, whether it’s managed through an enterprise BI tool, through Microsoft Excel, or even through PowerPoint, should be designed so that the structure of the dashboard does not change from one reporting period to the next — the same metrics appear in the same place week in and week out. BUT, within that structure, there should be a concerted effort to make sure that the metrics that are the farthest off target (usually the ones that are the farthest off target in a bad way, but if something is off the charts in a good way, that needs to be highlighted as well) are what the user’s eye is drawn to. And, furthermore, those are the metrics that warrant the first pass of drilling down to look for root causes.

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