The first rule of dashboard design: Define your audience
What makes an effective dashboard? The answer to this question is actually pretty simple: an effective dashboard is one that communicates a clear message. I think we often forget that a business dashboard is a communication tool, one that is intended to transmit complex information about your business performance. As such, dashboards follow the same basic rules as any other communication tool like a novel, magazine, radio broadcast, or even this blog.
The first rule of communication is to define your audience. Without a clear understanding of your audience, you lack the ability to craft a message that resonates with them. If you're thinking, "I'm designing a dashboard, not writing a story," then I'm going to have to disagree with you. A well-designed dashboard tells an important story: the story of your performance. And it's a non-fiction thriller that keeps your audience turning the proverbial page to find out what happens next.
So, how important is defining your audience?
Like a vehicle's dashboard, a business dashboard puts the user behind the wheel and gives them an assessment of their business' (or vehicle's) performance using visuals like gauges and meters. Just like a driver, business users don't need to understand the specific details of each process going on underneath the hood - they need to be able to assess their vehicle's performance, know when something's wrong, and when they need to address an issue. If you see your temperature gauge rising beyond acceptable levels, you should pull over.
Defining your audience has important implications for dashboard design. Just as a car's dashboard provides enough of the right information to allow drivers to effectively manage their vehicle's performance, the same philosophy applies to business dashboards. Dashboards simplify the complex - they don't dumb it down, instead they make it easier to apply that information to current situations. In other words, a business dashboard should allow users to figure out the best way to get from point A to point B (without overheating).
Defining your audience is about getting everyone on the same page
When designing a dashboard (or any other type of communication), we automatically choose ourselves as the default audience. This is perfectly natural and completely wrong. There is a fine line between dashboard design and dashboard consumption. The closer you are to the data, the more likely you are to fall for what I call the "same page fallacy." We assume that everyone else has the same, almost intuitive understanding of the data and the context surrounding that data, so when we try to explain the story the data is telling, it just doesn't resonate with our audience. If you've ever told a joke that seemed funny in your head to a group of friends only to hear crickets, you know what I mean. (I'm not alone ... right?)
Defining your audience is about getting everyone on the same page (including yourself). One method that works well in this regard is imagining that your audience is a new employee on their first day with your company. Your purpose is to get them up to speed on your business performance so they can hit the ground running. Let's see how this plays out with respect to your new social media marketing hire.
One metric that this hire is going to be responsible for improving is the number of followers your company has on Twitter. If we provide them with a raw metric like 125 followers YTD (year to date), that doesn't really say much. Is that number good or bad? Are we on target for this point in the year, or not?
On the other hand, the visual below is much easier to interpret. The new employee can see right off the bat that you're aiming to get 1000 new Twitter followers this year, and can tell by the color of the gauge that you're not meeting your target. The one shortcoming of this visual is the rolling target. It may not be immediately clear how this relates to the goal of 1000 (spoiler: it shows how many new followers you should have at this point in the year to achieve your goal of 1000 followers).
The resolution is to understand that your audience isn't as close to the data as you are, and lacks the intuitive understanding of what single metrics really mean. These images also help to show the difference between a metric and KPI. While a metric provides a value or raw number, a KPI frames that value/number within the context of your business goals and strategy.
Context is King!
When it comes to audience profiling and dashboard design, context is King. By understanding who your audience is, you also gain an appreciation for why they need a dashboard in the first place. If we're talking about an Executive, they need a dashboard to summarize performance metrics so they can make informed business decisions; if we're talking about a social media marketer, they need a social media dashboard to consolidate the myriad of metrics from sites like Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest and more, so they can get holistic sense of their performance.
Each widget or visual on a web dashboard should provide immediate context for the numbers being shown. It's great to know this is my revenue number for the year, but what is last year's revenue? How does this compare to the targets we've set for this year? Answering these types of questions is what separates an effective dashboard from an ineffective dashboard
Defining your audience is the first, essential step in designing an effective dashboard. It tells you who your audience is, what they want from your dashboard, and in what context they will use that dashboard. A dashboard is meant to communicate information about your business in a way that is clear and profound. Remember: Businesses use dashboards precisely because they don't want to have to sift through all that data to get an answer about their business.
I'll leave you with one last thought - the most powerful communication tool at your disposal is your ears. Being able to listen to and, more importantly, hear what people want out of a dashboard is an invaluable skill that will help you design effective dashboards.
Originally published March 8, 2013, updated Jun, 18 2019