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4 Essential Steps to Designing a Dashboard that Inspires Action

Designing good dashboards can feel like a mysterious art, something only the ‘creative types’ can master. But the truth is, anyone can design a killer dashboard. Yes, anyone. And when I say ‘killer dashboard’, I mean a really good, actionable, glanceable dashboard - the kind that makes you think less about the dashboard itself and more about how to improve your performance based on the numbers.

For the purposes of this post, we’ll assume you’ve already defined your key performance indicators and answered the question “Should this KPI be on my dashboard?”

Defining a Dashboard

Before we get to the designing part, let’s be clear on what a dashboard actually is. Stephen Few, author of Information Dashboard Design, defines it this way:

“A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives, consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.”

We’re designing a KPI dashboard that can be displayed on a TV monitor, easily read at a glance, and can inspire action. This also means we’re NOT designing a glorified spreadsheet, an art collage, or a detailed report.

A fundamental design principle is first defining the audience and their needs. Who will be viewing your KPI dashboard? What are the most important metrics for your audience that will drive action? Create a dashboard for a single audience so you can provide only the most relevant metrics.

For example, a sales dashboard will have completely different metrics than a support dashboard.

Example Sales Dashboard Example Sales KPI Dashboard

Example Support Dashboard Example Support KPI Dashboard

It’s worth repeating: a well designed dashboard drives action by displaying only directly relevant metrics for a single audience.

Now that we’re clear on what we’re designing, let’s talk about how.

Designing a Dashboard

1. Limit the amount of data shown. It’s tempting to add every number you can think of to a dashboard. Don’t do it. It’s best to limit your metrics to around 15 or less. This isn’t a magic number, but it will help you focus on only the most important metrics first. You can always swap, add, or remove metrics as necessary later.

The objective is to make the dashboard glanceable - a TV monitor (or other single screen) you can easily digest in seconds. No scrolling, no menu options, no data dump. When all metrics are present, none are important.

2. Use color sparingly. Color is a powerful design tool when used appropriately. It can change our mood or influence our response. Thanks to traffic lights, we instinctively associate red, yellow, and green with certain responses (stop, caution, and go, respectively). Use these instincts to make your data effortless to understand.

Green naturally conveys good progress - use to indicate improved metrics. Red signals danger - use to show when metrics have changed negatively. But be careful, as the number of colors (and amount of color) on the dashboard increases, the effectiveness of the colors drastically decreases.

Closely related to rainbow dashboards (and equally as ineffective) are 3D visualizations. Avoid them at all cost. They distort the reality of the data and make it difficult to read. When in doubt, keep it simple.

Use no more than 3-4 colors and make sure the amount of color on the dashboard is strategic. Every pixel of color on your dashboard conveys a message, so avoid adding color ‘just because.’ Below are two examples contrasting an excessively colored dashboard with a strategically colored dashboard.

Example of excessively colored dashboard Example of excessively colored dashboard Example of strategically colored dashboard Example of strategically colored dashboard

3. Arrange data based on priority. In the Western world, we read top left to top right, gradually making our way down the page, ending at the bottom right corner. Because of this, the most important real estate on your dashboard is the top left corner.

Begin by first grouping related metrics together. For example, on my dashboard I’ve grouped Blog Visitors, Average Time on Blog, and Blogs with Most Unique Pageviews together so I can easily access the blog performance as a whole.

Next, prioritize your grouped metrics by importance. The most critical metric should be in the top left corner with related metrics on the same row to the right. Continue this sequence so your metrics are displayed top left to bottom right, most important to least important.

4. Inspire action through visualization. This step goes hand in hand with defining the right KPIs, so make sure you’ve selected only the best metrics for your team. Every number, chart, graph, or list on your dashboard should be filtered through the question “Will this prompt action?”

Since we’re focusing on design, this question most directly applies to how the data is displayed. Would a metric with percentage of goal be better than a percentage alone? Should you have the change rate from the last 28 days included? What contextual, supporting metric do you need in order to take action on the primary metric? A KPI is meaningless if you don’t have the right context for determining action.

This is where the actual data visualization comes into play. Be sure to select the most relevant, actionable way to display your KPIs. This means no pie charts. Ever.

Eliminate any visualization that makes the data more complex, regardless of how artistic or clever. If you have to step closer to the TV dashboard and spend time understanding the visualization, you’ve failed.

Below is a sample sales dashboard illustrating various effective ways to display key metrics. Example sales dashboard

By contrast, see how complexity makes this exploding visual a complete dashboard fail. Dashboard fail

As you begin building your dashboard, consider using the following visualizations for these common data points.

  • Goal (e.g. MRR, blog subscribers, etc): measures current progress against the goal with %
  • Trend (e.g. total paying customers): line chart shows trend over a specified time (could be 7 days, 28 days, or whatever length you choose)
  • Month over month increase/decrease (e.g. trial signups): provides reference point based on previous month with easy to read green/red arrow indicators.

P.S. Want to learn more about dashboard design? Check out the 6 Golden Rules of Dashboard Design.

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