Drowning in data? Design your way out!

Extract insights from your data by applying this design principle.

Prefer sound waves over text? Click here to listen to Darrell read his article.

Data is just data. There’s lots of it, and it looks like there’s no end in sight to what can be measured and collected. Making every spec of data available to your users — especially without a clear purpose — is just as useless as having no data at all.

So, once you have a clear sense of purpose for your dashboard, it’s time to do something with that data. I believe dashboards — like any technology project — benefit from following solid design principles.

Data is not useful by itself. You must create context.

We’ve seen businesses grapple with this challenge again and again. Someone thinks, “We can’t predict all the questions people want answered. Let’s just give them all the data and a way to slice it themselves.”

Many dashboards fail with this approach, because people are overwhelmed by details. Perhaps the professional analyst is geared up to do deep data slicing, but we’re designing dashboards for executives and managers. The number of business decisions vying for their attention every day leaves them with little time to process volumes of data.

If we can jumpstart that process by making some contextual design choices, then they get their insights effortlessly. We’re not talking about simply turning numbers into a pie chart or bar graph. That isn’t discovering intent, that is formatting data. Creating context happens is when you understand your users and what they want out of the data. That makes a dashboard valuable.

A powerful dashboard is an actionable one.

Context expresses an opinion about the data. Dashboard widgets are not meant to be neutral reports—they should give you a glanceable thumbs up or thumbs down.

Context answers the user’s questions before the user even asks. You shouldn’t have to navigate away from the dashboard to look at historical data or any other resource to assess progress. Are sales trending up or down? Is recruiting on target or not?

Context lightens the user’s cognitive load. It does some of the thinking for you. A good dashboard doesn’t wait for you to process information and prioritize. Context cuts to the chase. It says, “Pay attention to me! You need to act now.”

So, how do you begin? Start with people.

Identify who needs the data. An executive and a team manager think differently, and they probably use technology differently, too. They may be able to share a dashboard, but it’s unlikely. Knowing who’ll need this dashboard will allow you to create views specific to the role.

Understand this person’s day. An early morning coffee has them getting their day lined up at their laptop. Back-to-back afternoon meetings has them glancing quickly at their phone. When, where, and how this person navigates their day and the technology they use puts them in a specific context that needs addressing in the design.

Survey the data. There is a lot of data out there, but not all of it has an API ready to be plugged into your dashboard. Knowing what you do have, and how often it’s updated will start to set the table for your dashboard. Identifying these data gaps up front will save you time, money and effort and may change the dashboard design.

Determine their decision points. Ask them to zero in on exactly what information they need in order to make their business decisions. Now you can focus on what data matters, and what doesn’t. It’s likely they won’t tell you which data columns they need, but by listening to their thought process you’ll be able to create insight from the data you know is available.

Take your context creation to the next level.

Understanding the user—their habits and their decision points—as well as the available data, still leaves the prospect of presenting that data visually. The best approach is to engage an Experience Designer to create this vision. They have years of expertise in weilding the elements of the digital medium, and can produce variations and prototypes you can test with your users. They’ll use techniques like:

  1. Scale. If something is important, we draw attention by making it bigger. If something is less important, its smaller size says, “Focus on me later.”
  2. Contrast. Making dashboards colorful or monotone, bright or dim, is another way to offer visual clues and attract attention to what matters now.
  3. Positioning. We add context to widgets by placing key metrics front and center, grouping related metrics, or isolating summary information from detail information.
  4. Hierarchy. Arranging widgets by order of importance, from top-to-bottom or large-to-small, quickly prioritizes information for you.
  5. Icons. When terms and concepts are commonly understood, words can be simplified with visual symbols to express the same meaning.
  6. Words. Although dashboard text should be minimal, words are useful when it’s critical to understand a metric. Sometimes there is no substitution for clear labels and titles.

Would you like to design effective dashboards for your organization?

Tell us about your challenge. We’d love to show you how establishing context for data can help you make better business decisions — faster.

Check out Dashboards that Deliver, the SingleStone guide to building smarter business intelligence tools.