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What I Learned from Reviewing 500+ Dashboards

10/03/2016 by Jaime D’Agord Data Communication

While preparing for a recent presentation, I was trying to find some dashboards that illustrated some of my ideas. I didn’t want the presentation to be just my dashboards. These are universal principals; everyone follows these same guidelines?  Right?

If you search Google Images, you can see many dashboard examples at once. With a few quick clicks, you can explore the sites to get some understanding of the topic. I’ll admit I did not do this exercise for all 500+ images, but I did have some takeaways.

Product Demos Can Get Bizarre

Most of these dashboards are flaunting product features over useable design. It’s the only conclusion I can reach for seeing such an odd variety of data objects placed on the same page. A bubble chart next to a 3D pie chart next to a map? Someone’s picture with a dozen gauges? A mindmap with traffic lighting? Sorry folks these techniques are just plain bizarre.

Most dashboards I reviewed had a generic topic such as sales, customer service, or healthcare. But the measures within the dashboard never made much sense. Usually, you don’t put measures like team ratings, yearly sales performance, and product defect counts together. I’m exaggerating but it’s not too far from the truth. I suppose the designer was saying – look you can put all of your information together.  But should you is what I ask?

My worry is that an inexperienced designer might use these misguided dashboards as examples. I wonder how that person would have any success in their organization. Either that tool or the person will be blamed for the menacing idea.

Is It Just Lack of Dataviz Knowledge?

A closer review of the dashboards reveals poor style choices and an overall lack of data visualization knowledge. The biggest offender is the misuse of a dashboard gauge. While many dashboard designers object to gauges, they can be used successfully. There are guidelines for their use – but many of these dashboards didn’t follow those guidelines. Many of the basic data visualization principles were also ignored. Maybe a designer was so enamored with the car dashboard idea that making the data understood was forgotten. What organization has 20 KPIs on the same page?

Many of the dashboards feature bright palettes with odd background color choices. One thing I know about dashboards is this: if the user does not need the data presented then your dashboard is judged solely on how aesthetically pleasing it is. If the user needs the information to complete a work assignment, the dashboard can be dreadful and still be popular.

But don’t you want a nice looking dashboard? Isn’t it horrible to think some poor slob was suffering through your poor data? Or others scoffing at a disagreeable dashboard design. There is a discipline to data visualization and web design. It can be learned.

The Term “Performance Dashboard” is not Universally Understood

Some designers used MS Excel to create a dashboard. This technique was just a misuse of the tool. A dashboard is an organizational tool and should be available in a central location. How would you share an Excel spreadsheet with an organization? Through email? How do you keep it updated and how do you control changes? I won’t belabor the point, but geez.

To my mind, a performance dashboard is a very specific tool used in an organization. It allows the organization to set objectives and track those measures through a time period. It is an investment. As organizations grow, a dashboard assists the organization with growth. It focuses on the use of data, which shows the real value of the data.

What Should a Dashboard Be?

With many of these designs above, you have to wonder if the dashboard is effective or even useable. To this end, dashboards can be boring to an outsider. The dashboard is custom to the organization and contains what they want to focus on. One organization may need to focus on training while another needs to focus on being more effective with fewer resources. These issues would have different KPIs and use different supporting information.

When a dashboard is attractive and effective, it’s perfection.

Many times it is trusty ole bar charts, line charts, and maybe a few gauges are the right answer. A clean, simple design that allows the user to focus on the measures. I suppose those principles don’t sell many dashboard building tools just showing those things. After all, there is an art to the sales and marketing process as well.