Data Dashboard Design: Choosing the Right Visuals (Part 1 of 3)

Have you ever seen a visual—it’s placement, it’s color—and thought: “That is the PERFECT visual for this dashboard!” I don’t think I have[1]. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Visuals on a dashboard are like songs in a movie. If they’re done right, they fit the scene so well, drive the message home so smoothly, they hardly stand out at all. Usually, songs in movies are just the garnish to the story; they’re not meant to steal the show, but to bring the story to life.

Dashboards, like movies, are story-telling devices. They’re just always non-fiction (hopefully).

Perhaps all of us tasked with designing a dashboard should be called Data Directors, in homage to Music Directors (the people to choose music in films) [2]. We, like Music Directors, orchestrate the best way to drive a message home as meaningfully as possible. And we all deserve fancy titles for the under appreciated work we do, right?

Choosing the right visuals requires three things: (1) knowing the story (2) telling the story effectively (3) letting the story lead.

In this article, I will only address the first. I will address numbers two and three in forthcoming articles (stay tuned!).

Know the Story

To ensure you tell the right story on your dashboard—you will need to understand why the report is being created in the first place. Or in scrum/agile terms: you need to collect User Stories. To do this, you need to:

  • Identify the end users of the dashboard

  • Ask them what information they need from it

  • Ask them why they need that information (or how it will affect their work)

We use the scrum methodology at JourneyTEAM, and we go through this process before we add a single visual to a report. Why? If we tell the wrong story, we’re just wasting our time (and our clients’).

Identify the End Users

You need to determine who the end users will be. And it’s often helpful to categorize them by their roles (especially when you have a lot of them). For example, end users could be broken down into executives, managers, construction workers, etc. Defining the categories of the users may not be so obvious in your scenario. In reality, understanding the organization your supporting will be crucial here. Likely the sponsor(s) for the project can help talk you through this. That said, it’s worth dedicating time with the sponsor specifically to brainstorm this subject, even if it seems like it’s been covered.

Though that is the flow of Scrum User Stories, I’ve found switching steps 3 and 2 can be even more effective.

Identify What Information They Need'

This is almost always generally understood before a project like this is undertaken, but it’s rarely explored as thoroughly as needed. This needs to be clear for each user type to be sure we get the right visuals on the dashboard(s).

Here’s an example: as an executive, I need to see the health of my business. That’s helpful, but not specific enough for our scenario. That perhaps helps us understand the overall purpose of the project—likely to keep a pulse on KPIs—but again, this leaves a lot of assumptions to be made. Asking an executive what exactly defines or indicates the health of the business will help get more specific information.

I like the information to be about as granular as this: I want to see the gross margins of the business; I want to see how many employees we have at a given moment; etc. This kind of information quickly creates clarity. It doesn’t solve everything, even within those there are some options to consider, but that’s more than enough—iterations will always come once the users can see the visuals in action.

If you find you’re not getting granular enough information from your end users, move to the next step and come back.

Identify Why They Need the Information

In the end, identifying why users need this information this is an essential piece of the puzzle[1]. Each end user’s “why” provides incredible clarity to the project. Hopefully those are the reason for the project in the first place.

To expand the first example above: as an executive, I need to see the health of the organization, so I know where to focus my energy. With that kind of information, you can really narrow the which visuals will tell the story most effectively, which is the next step in the process of choosing the right visuals.

[Suspenseful music]

To Be Continued…

[1]Sometimes I think: “Hey, that’s best practice!” or “That’s a new one” or “Oh my (in a bad way).” But that’s about the extent of me noticing specific visuals.

[1]I had to look up that title. But seriously, picking the right music for scenes seems to be a painstaking and under-appreciated job, doesn’t it? I mean, how many songs are there in the world? (Spotify has over 50 million tracks! Sometimes it seems like there are that many visuals to choose from.) And how often do we look for the Music Director in the credits of a movie? I never have. But the right music can make the message and emotion of a scene unforgettable—even if we don’t notice it.

[1] Though that is the flow of Scrum User Stories, I’ve found switching steps 3 and 2 can be even more effective.

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