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How to create actionable dashboards in 7 steps

Dashboarding has become more and more common as organizations look for methods to visualize their data in an effective way and gain useful insights. The power of dashboards lies in their ability to present complex information in a visual format through one single interface. They enable the stakeholders to get a clear view of the performance of their organization instead of drowning in the flood of data.

Despite their growing popularity, a lot of people still fail to create powerful and actionable dashboards. Unclear visualizations, bad design or an overload of information could all lead to dashboards being cluttered and ineffective, which eventually defeats their purpose. In order to avoid this, we listed 7 simple steps to rock your dashboards and get the best out of them.

Step 1: Start with the user

First of all: identify the people who will use your dashboard. In order to make sure the users get the most out of it, you also have to understand how and why they make certain decisions. Go talk to them and ask them who they are, which problems they need to solve and what they need out of your dashboard. It’s very important to keep your audience and their requirements in mind throughout the whole design process. After all valuable insights can only be obtained through strong understanding of the user needs.

Step 2: Define your dashboard objectives

Now that you know your end users, it’s time to think about the main objectives of your dashboard. Start with the questions your dashboard needs to answer and formulate the purpose and scope. Make sure not to make the scope too broad so your main questions can still be answered within a (preferably) one-page panel.

Step 3: Choose the right Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)

After deciding on the main objectives, you have to translate them into suitable Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in order to use the right metrics and dimensions to measure them. Try to make a list of all dimensions and metrics you will need for these KPIs. This will come in handy in further steps. Also don’t get lost by adding every possible metric you can think of, but make sure to focus solely on the KPIs that actually matter to your audience. Less is more!

Step 4: Collect the required data sources

The next important step includes looking for available data and collecting the required data sources. One major advantage of dashboards is their ability to combine data from different sources in one location, whether your data is stored on a web service, API or Excel sheet. Make sure you have clean and reliable data at your disposal.

Step 5: Decide on the dashboarding solution

There are a lot of dashboarding solutions out there, all with different functionalities and prices. You can choose to build your dashboard in Google Data Studio, Tableau, Klipfolio, Datorama or many other solutions. Or maybe you just want an inherent dashboard in tools like Google Analytics or Adobe Analytics. When deciding on the right platform there are some things to take into account. Pricing, functionalities, ease of use, skill level of the end users and connectivity with the data sources for example could all play a role in the decision process. The key is to pick the solution most fitted to the purpose of your dashboard without losing sight of the previously mentioned factors. Choose wisely!

Step 6: Pick suitable visualizations and sketch a first prototype

Before you start building your dashboard in your chosen tool, it’s recommended to make a rough sketch or mock-up of what it should look like. This acts as a blueprint for your dashboard and will be of great value when building it. It’s up to you to use a special mock-up tool or stick to good old pen and paper for your wireframe.

Start with the list of dimensions and metrics from step 3 and combine them in suitable visualizations. Stick to a simple and clear structure and optimize the available space. Begin by grouping related metrics together and arrange your visualizations based on priority. Most people tend to scan a web page in a particular pattern, mostly in the model of an E or F. When applying this in a dashboard it’s recommended to place the information that users most often check in the top left corner and make your way down the available space, ending at the bottom right corner. Also remember that the more space a visualization occupies, the more important it appears. Size does matter!

A common mistake is to include way too much information and cram in as much data as possible wherever it will fit. This will inevitably lead to a sensory overload and cluttered look. Keep it simple instead and make sure your visualizations are easy to interpret by the end user.

Another dangerous trap is the excessive or inappropriate use of colour. Keep it professional and think about the meaning and message every colour conveys instead of using them solely as a way to make your dashboard look more attractive. This doesn’t necessarily have to result in a boring dashboard. Use your creativity, apply colours in a strategic way and try to tell a story with your data.

It’s always a good idea to show the mock-up to the stakeholders and let them share their thoughts. This is an iterative process. Repeat this feedback loop until everyone is satisfied with the look and structure of the dashboard.

Step 7: Design and delivery

Once your sketch meets everyone’s expectations you can start building your dashboard in the chosen tool. Don’t forget to add a certain degree of interactivity to your dashboard. Segment pickers, filters, data range controls or other useful functionalities could all empower the stakeholders to gain actionable insights to drive their decisions.

Take your time to thoroughly double-check all functionalities and verify your data. Do the numbers in your dashboard match the numbers from, for example, Google Analytics? Before officially delivering the dashboard to the end-users, let them test everything and make changes wherever necessary. Feedback from the stakeholders is, just like in the previous step, crucial for the adoption and success of the dashboard.

The dashboard is done now, right?

Wrong! The work doesn’t end here. The dashboard still needs to be integrated into the right teams and processes and stakeholders should be trained to work with them. On top of that the dashboard should be regularly reviewed. Is it helping with decision making? Are all dimensions and metrics still relevant? Is additional data needed? In order to continuously benefit from your dashboard frequent maintenance is crucial.

You get it: building and maintaining a good dashboard is a very time-consuming process, but it’s definitely worth the effort.