Best practices for data dashboards

Effective dashboards are powerful tools that make imperative statements as to what a company or team consider to be valuable. The process of sourcing and communicating that data can spark discussions that at times can strike right at the core of the business and its purpose.

Where Should You Start?

New discussions may need to be had. Honest discussions are a must. You’ll most likely need to invest some time in building new processes that can fundamentally support a culture of transparency and communication fluency. Effective dashboards are not built overnight but the effects on the organization can be transformational.

So what ultimately motivates people to press on through these challenges?

In reality, the problems that data dashboards can solve are not all that tangible from the outset. That’s why the first step towards building an effective dashboard is to take a step back and identify why you’re building a dashboard in the first place.

Here are some of the most common problems and what a dashboard can do to help:

Problem Solution
Key business metrics are abstract or difficult for employees to digest. Simple, standardized visualizations that anybody can understand.
Employees feel lost or need guidance. Communicate business goals to rally around that show progress.
Reporting key metrics is time-consuming. Build one simple dashboard that updates automatically as data changes.
Logging in to access information across multiple platforms is a pain or security risk. Bring together the most useful data from different services into one place.
Trends cannot be identified easily across systems. Bring data from multiple sources into one space to instantly get a better context.

Every business is different, but the issues created by the democratization of data seem to be universal. Understanding the problems that effective data communication can solve is an important first step that can help you identify the data you will need access to, keep you focused and give you the motivation to persevere.

Businesses are fluid environments; projects, people, objectives and the tools you use are constantly evolving. Your dashboard should be evolving with the rest of the business, if not driving the evolution itself.

Good business dashboards are a reflection of where your team or business is at, and as such, your dashboard is unlikely to stay the same for very long. Understanding that your dashboard is not fixed in stone - that it can (and should) change organically over time - is one of the keys to keeping it up-to-date and relevant.

The Five Stages of a Dashboard Evolution

The Five Stages of Dashboard Evolution is a framework for understanding where you sit in the journey of reaching dashboard enlightenment. You should see this framework as a reference to guide you in the process of creating and using dashboards to support your data-driven efforts. Some stages may apply to you and some not, but the most important thing to remember is that this is a process, not a panacea. Effective dashboards don’t happen overnight, and it’s extremely rare to arrive at a ‘perfect’ dashboard immediately. 

Stage 1 - Curiosity

At this stage you have identified the need to start moving into a more data-driven environment. You and the members of your team are willing to start understanding what kind of data you should be tracking, and how you go about analyzing that data. At this point it’s not very clear how many tools you’ll need to use. You’re mainly in research mode and you’re eager to learn about how other organizations do things. 

Stage 2 - Play

You’re already tracking some data and have some understanding of analytics. You’ve spent some time tracking and analyzing data as well as testing different reporting tools. You’re trying out different business intelligence (BI) tools and you’re setting up your first dashboard. The business recognizes the importance of starting to act on the data collected and the potential benefits of sharing those insights with the rest of the organization.

Stage 3 - Clutter

As your dashboards are shared with colleagues, you start receiving requests from other teams to either add some metrics to the current dashboard or to build specific dashboards. At first, these requests may be added to your dashboard spontaneously, but you’ll soon realize that some of the metrics are not truly actionable. You now have a cluttered dashboard that needs rethinking.

Stage 4 - Clean Up

You and your team have decide to look at your business goals and carefully chose the metrics that align with those goals. You display these metrics on your dashboards, which immediately communicate the purpose of each dashboard. You’re focused on understanding the actionable metrics for specific individuals, teams and the entire organization.

Sate 5 - Focus

At this stage you and your team feel very confident about the metrics you’re tracking. You’re starting to see changes in culture, people are more focused and you can see more conversations happening around the numbers you’re displaying on your dashboard. You may have your dashboards on big screens on the wall around the office or use it on multiple devices.

Still not sure where you fit in on this scale? That’s okay. The first step is to start the conversation with your team, don’t try to rush things. Exploration and experimentation is key.

Get help

Need to bring in a fresh pair of eyes or some fresh thinking? Get in touch, we’ll be happy to help you figure things out.

The best way to get the most out of your dashboard is to really take the time to think about your key metrics. To feel confident about what you’re monitoring and enabling people to focus on those numbers is a big part of the journey.

Start identifying what matters to your business by asking the following question:

Are the metrics I’m measuring changing my behavior or the behavior of people in my organization?

If the value of the metrics that you’re currently monitoring suddenly changed dramatically, how would that change your actions?

If the answer is that it wouldn’t, it’s very likely that you’re not tracking actionable metrics.

Deciding What Matters: Good vs Bad Metrics

A dashboard is only as good as the actions it generates - it’s not just there to look pretty. Understanding which metrics can have the most tangible impact on your business will ultimately drive the value your organization gets from a dashboard.

In Lean Analytics, Alistair Croll and Ben Yoskovitz introduce a framework for deciding whether the metrics you’re tracking are good metrics or bad metrics.

The distinction is crucial. Aligning activities around bad metrics can, at best, reduce the effectiveness of your dashboard, and t worst, increase the chances of leading your team away from what matters and preventing you from achieving your business goals.

Let’s avoid being misguided by bad metrics by defining the characteristics of a good metric. According to Alistair and Ben, a ‘Good’ metric is:

  • Understandable
    The metric should be understood by everybody who has access to it. Can you explain the metric to a stranger, and will they be able to understand how you’re doing?
  • Comparative
    Metrics should ideally be able to be compared over periods of time or against industry benchmarks. E.g. Active users this month.
  • A ratio or rate
    Absolute numbers can be useful, but rates and ratios generally provide a bigger context. E.g. Percentage of users who are active this month.
  • Behavior-changing
    Can someone take meaningful action based on how the metric changes? If not, then this metric may simply be noise. Ask: How do the metrics you’re tracking compare against these four simple criteria?

Why dashboards fail


Further reading

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