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How to Design a Dashboard: Your 5-Step Guide to Devoted Users

Data Communication

Jaime D’Agord



Dashboards help users understand if a process, department, or project is running smoothly. Using key performance indicators (KPIs), metrics, and supporting charts, managers can easily track if the team is meeting the goals and objectives. Executive or performance dashboards are customized to contain information that users find inviting because they created it.

Let’s consider the steps you might use to create a dashboard for a technical support organization. However, these steps work for marketing or sales departments.

Step 1: Prepare for the Task of Building the Dashboard

Your success in this task requires that you are familiar with the organization’s information or the business domain. If you are new to the business domain, there are many resources to educate yourself. Ensure you are familiar with what information is needed to ensure business performance.

These are the questions you would want to answer before designing any dashboards:

  • What are the common issues in technical support organizations? Many organizations struggle with not having enough resources, while others may suffer from low customer satisfaction.
  • What are the typical KPIs? You will want plenty of examples. [Tip: Need to get started? Check the extensive guidelines at the KPI Institute for KPI listings.]
  • How are those KPIs defined? Does your team agree with the department’s definitions for the KPIs? Again, have examples of how the metrics will look.
  • How does the business process customer contacts? What is the process for responding to a customer? For instance, are there any publicized or contractual response times? Is there any specific information your customers request that you track?

It helps when you understand the business domain because you will inherently know where to look for issues and have ideas for what analytics are needed. You can support your users better when you see the information they want and understand what their executive management wants.

Step 2: Agree What the Business Needs to Measure

The value of a dashboard is monitoring business performance. If the users understand how the metrics link to their success, then you’ll have most of your adoption race won. It’s like a little freebie! Dashboards occur more frequently in Level 3 of the Analytics Maturity Model.

Start the process by pulling managers or senior employees into a brainstorming session. (If it is a smaller business, it might make sense to add an executive.) You’ll need a whiteboard for this process. This session should cover topics such as executive or department metrics, pain points, and any existing (readily available) metrics.

Encourage the managers to describe things that cause issues, how much time processes should take, or how they know things are running smoothly. Limit this meeting to managers (or senior folks). Keep the group small at first, so the decision making moves quickly.

Ensure that metrics ring true with what the executives and other management team members have said.

This step may require several rounds, but be persistent. Perhaps each session would have an area of focus. For a technical support organization, the center of the first meeting might be from the customer’s viewpoint. The second meeting might be from the management viewpoint. Alternatively, each session could focus on a different part of the process. For our customer support example, there would be three meetings that cover the process. I imagine ticket intake, ticket processing, and ticket resolution as possible topics. There is no one correct method.

At your kick-off meeting, let the team decide the best method. You want to have an agenda and state the purpose of each session after that. Try to keep the gatherings in bite-sized pieces and manage the time spent carefully.

If you try to discuss too many topics at once, it will be easy for the team to lose focus.

These techniques help the sessions to feel productive and proper use of time, so busier people with key input always attend.

From these sessions, you will gain an interesting perspective on how the team thinks about success and what topics are sore spots. Not everyone has to agree at first! Get the objections on the table as quickly as possible. You’ll notice patterns beginning to form. The team will start to understand what they most need from the dashboard. align dashboard goals to objectives and KPIs

At the end of these sessions, you should have at least 3-5 objectives for each area of focus. Again, when the dashboard perfectly melds with the organization’s goals, the team will want to use it.

Step 3: Assemble the Supporting Data

After determining the objectives, you can start planning the KPIs and collecting data. Databases most often track the process you are measuring. Make sure you understand how the database supports the process along with what data is collected. The data available to you will ultimately determine your success. A key factor for you.

Consider all data sources available to you.

In smaller companies, the data is tracked in alternate ways. One company I worked with updated employee training records in a spreadsheet. The records were updated monthly. It is a valid data source if it is well-maintained. When using these data sources within a dashboard, you may want to be more clear about how each source is updated.

If you plan to use a data source that is not consistently populated, your KPIs and metrics will not be correct. You will have adoption issues later if the users believe the dashboard is incorrect or the information is always out of date.

Step 4: Finally!  The Fun Part! Build It!

As the goal process continues, you can start thinking of the executive dashboard layout. Often dashboard designers find the design a challenge. There are multiple KPIs and data points that you want to share. It can be challenging to determine where to start. All of the dashboards I have designed have had their executive flavor. You’ll have to find your design flavor.

For layouts, the essential charts and graphs should be larger than other objects.

Users inherently believe that the larger the indicators are, the more critical they are, objects closer together are related and objects the same color are related. It is how we have been taught to observe the world since first grade. It is vital to factor hierarchy into your dashboard design.

Plan your layout. Don’t discount good ole paper and pencil for this task. At least sketch some initial ideas on paper. When getting started, You should logically group the data and consider the user’s path through the data. Determine which KPIs are vital and which metrics are helpful secondary information.

Once you have some ideas on paper, then you create a wireframe. The wireframes show the basic layout for each dashboard. Do multiple layouts so the team can see at least two examples.

Wireframes communication so much to about the dashboard. They learn how the dashboard relates to other dashboards and reports within the environment.

I like to use Microsoft Visio but LucidCharts is another good choice for planning your layout. It gives a professional appearance to my wireframes so I can share the examples with the team. They can use wireframes to understand how they will find information and key analytics.

It’s also easy to transfer your wireframe layout to SAS Visual Analytics. Because the software is so quick and flexible, it is easy to experiment with the data in various chart objects. Sometimes you don’t know if a line or bar chart is better until you see it with the real data. Consider how users perceive visual information. Also, consider your color choices! Sometimes you realize another filter would assist the user in seeing the data better. [Here are some example dashboards we have built including an executive and performance dashboards.]

You should expect a few iterations of the dashboard with the users before it goes into production. While it may feel like your ideas are getting shattered, you should welcome this process. The more ownership the users feel for your dashboards, the more likely they are to adopt and use the dashboards. That is the real power of data.

After all, it is not your dashboard; it’s a tool the organization needs to manage the business. The highest compliment to you and your work effort is that the team uses it to guide the company. While the executive team may not realize its power, the group using your data analytics certainly will.

Step 5: Shepherd the User Adoption Process

Once the performance dashboard (or executive dashboards) is available to the company, it may seem like your work is complete. The transition-to-users phase may be the key step. During this phase, you should have training sessions with users to explain the how and why of the dashboards. You might think of this the same as marketing a new product where you sell the value of this dashboard and its process.

If the users were not involved in the dashboard creation process, make sure you enlist an advocate (or better an executive) to talk about the dashboard’s benefits. This person is usually a member of the management team. If the team sees the manager or executive using the software, they will use the tool also. The management team sets the example!

Consider attending meetings where the executive dashboard is used to observe how the team interacts with it. You can immediately address any concerns. With software like SAS Visual Analytics, you can fix any dashboard issues on the fly. If you invest the time, you will ensure user adoption of the dashboard. The management team will understand the value of the software and the dashboard.

You will be pleased with your marketing efforts and glad you spent the time on this step.

A dashboard is an organization investment and a useful executive management tool. Treat it as such.

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