When people think about business dashboards, their mind typically wanders straight to data visualizations—tools that filter through all of their services and spreadsheets to churn out an image of their business that doesn't give them a headache to look at.
But while this is true, these visualizations are meaningless without comparison values.
Comparison values are the true "meaning makers" of your dashboard.
They’re the values of your metric or KPI that compare current performance to past performance, or to a target. While variables such as color and layout are important for dashboard design, comparison values are critical elements that are often forgotten.
Adding comparison values is perhaps the easiest way to ensure that you are building a meaningful dashboard, one that doesn’t just inform users, but also motivates them to ask questions about performance and make data-driven decisions.
The big benefit of comparison values
As you read through this post, you’ll pick up on the many benefits of adding comparison values to your dashboard's design. The biggest benefit, however, is worth diving into before we get into the nitty gritty of this essential dashboard element:
This benefit is about the level of efficiency a dashboard adds to your team, because if a user can’t quickly glance to see the information they need, it’s unlikely they’ll develop the habit of using the dashboard at all.
Comparison values, which you can enhance by design elements such as colored text, indicators and shapes, make every interaction with a dashboard meaningful.
Different types of comparison values
Comparison values, just like all dashboard design principles, are not a one size fits all type deal. The only constant is that comparison values must be meaningful for the users they serve.
The following are the most common categories of comparison values.
Comparison against a projection
This comparison value is best used to make sure your business is on track. While it is impossible to predict the future, all growing businesses should understand their capabilities and market, and plan to be able to make projections for the future.
Comparison against a preceding period
This comparison value is useful for both large and small scale metrics.
Each day is a learning experience, and this metric pulls that truism front and center.
Whether you’re looking at yesterday’s trials compared to today's, or last month's sales compared to this month's, this comparison value allows your team to see every day as an opportunity to do better.
Comparison against a set target
It's important to set actionable KPI targets. How are people to know what is good and bad if they can’t see what they are striving for?
Adding a comparison value against a set target is as motivating as it is essential for your dashboard design.
Comparison against a trailing average
A trailing average is an average taken over a set period of time as defined by the company. You can have a trailing average over the last 12 months, 30 days or week up until the current point in time.
This comparison value gives you a picture of your business's health over time.
Comparison against a prior equivalent period
Where was your performance this day last year? Have you improved?
Were there major changes in the market or in your product that caused your slowest periods?
These are some of the questions this comparison value will prompt on your dashboard. It compares the performance of today, this week or this month to a prior equivalent period (i.e. this time last year).
Comparison against another metric
Adding this comparison value adds a story to the numbers.
Sometimes it’s easier to assess the pieces when they are together rather than to try to tease a story out of each metric.
Layering metrics on metrics can help explain what is happening.
Take churn metrics, for example. For many members of your team, it may be more useful to display New Account Activations vs. Account Cancellations instead of just seeing that your Churn Rate is x%.
How to know which comparison value to use
Deciding which comparison value to use takes a combination of the data you have available and a decision around what type of meaning you want your metrics (and the dashboard they are displayed on) to have.
From my research, I have found that comparison values based on organizational targets are often more meaningful than values based on historical data.
This is because organizational targets say what is “good” or “bad,” while the latter just says what is better or worse than the past.
When (and when not) to use comparison values
Your dashboard's design should almost always include comparison values.
There’s only one particular circumstance when it shouldn’t.
If you’ve had a difficult time coming up with a comparison value, it’s unlikely that anyone will act on it if it changes—so ask yourself:
Does this metric belong on my dashboard? Will its changes inspire behavior?
If not, it's probably best to avoid it.
But if you have the opposite problem, a situation where your users are intimately familiar with the history or targets of a given metric, you still have to add comparison values!
Knowledgeable users are not always the only ones consulting the dashboard; we know this because dashboards make it easy to share information—including with those who may not be as familiar with your particular KPIs.
Omitting comparison values that may be obvious to you can create barriers to entry for your dashboard. This can be problematic when the dashboard, as it should be at some point, is shared across departments (and with new people when they join your team).
Originally published July 18, 2017, updated Jun, 17 2019