You don’t have to go very far to see reports & dashboards that look like they might be better utilized to replace waterboarding as an effective torturing method. They can be such an effective weapon. What is surprising however is that I don’t think any one actually sets out with that goal. No one starts building a dashboard with the thought that they are going to put as many executives out of their misery as possible. Let’s just hope that’s not the case. So what it is then?
Developing Dashboards is like Developing Kids
I like to think that report and dashboard development is a lot like parenting. There are tons of parents out there that do things their own way but the sheer fact that there are still people on this planet has to mean at a basic level the vast majority of parents did something right. Many people do some things right in building reports and dashboards. We all probably know those super-achieving parents who just seem to do everything right and their kids end up being presidents, Rhode scholars, Nobel laureates, yada yada yada. There are people out their who know all the rules and have all the experience and just put out a dashboard that you want to print and hang on your wall because it’s THAT amazing.
You may be on the road to catching up with the likes of David McCandless or you maybe like many others just getting started and know there has to be something better than this. I spent years looking at my own work and being proud of where I was and how I got there but really internally telling myself “You actually kind of suck at this”. Now looking back here are the things I learned and always think about when I am designing dashboards & reports with the intention that they will be utilized and heck even adored for their ability to mix data with design. I still get chills when I know I’ve done it right. It’s a very satisfying feeling. So do this:
Get clear on the outcome before you ever click a button.
In my view it is a waste of energy and time to start designing a dashboard when you aren’t 100% clear what you really are trying to produce.
Prototyping is an extremely good thing.
Don’t go for the perfect report from the beginning and then set yourself up for failure when you find out that the customers you are building for don’t like it. Start small and get feedback early and often.
Tables and tables of numbers is not good reporting or dashboarding. The easy way to make sure you do this is to always ask yourself “Do I really understand what this is telling me?” if you think it doesn’t make sense there is a good chance no one else will be able to make sense of it either. You are human just like most people and most people can comprehend charts and graphs better. Humans are built to see visually.
Don’t put everything on one page.
It’s almost like people have an addiction to not putting everything on one page….”but but what if I lose that second page???” or “Well my boss wants everything in one place and doesn’t want to have to search around for information”. My response: “Please.” No human, not Bill Clinton, not Bill Gates, not my 9 yr old boy can read and understand 25 charts and graphs all on one page. Spread it out but make it coherent.
Tell a story
David McCandless said it perfectly… Information is Beautiful. I can’t recommend learning how to tell good stories enough. It is finally being considered in modern business as a critical skill. The only caveat with you is that you do it with data and information so learn how to do it well.
Keep doing different things
I see so many people who just re-create the same dashboards over and over and over…..stop! Get creative, learn some new visual technique, and use it. Find ways to show the same data differently, then ask yourself if it makes your point clearer? Do people identify what I want them to see quicker? Then it worked. Don’t get stagnate. Use different colors, different shapes, and different tools.
Here are a few so now you tell me, what rules or guidelines do you have when building dashboards or reports?