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Get Help When Designing Dashboards

Designing dashboards is not unlike decorating a room in your house. Most homeowners design as they purchase objects to place in the room. When we buy a rug, we select the nicest rug; when we pick out wall paint, we pick the most appealing color; when we select chairs and tables, we find the most elegant ones we can afford. Although each individual selection makes sense, collectively the objects clash or compete for attention.

Smart homeowners (with enough cash) hire interior decorators who filter your tastes and preferences through principles of interior design to create a look and feel in which every element works together harmoniously and emphasizes what really matters. For example, the design might highlight an elegant antique coffee table by selecting carpets, couches, and curtains that complement its color and texture.

To optimize the design of your performance dashboard, it is important to get somebody on the team who is trained in the visual design of quantitative information displays. Although few teams can afford to hire someone full time, you may be able to hire a consultant to provide initial guidance or find someone in the marketing department with appropriate training. Ideally, the person can educate the team about basic design principles and provide feedback on initial displays.

But be careful: don’t entrust the design to someone who is a run-of-the-mill graphic artist or who is not familiar with user requirements, business processes, and corporate data. For example, a Web designer will give you a professional looking display but will probably garble the data—they might use the wrong type of chart to display data or group metrics in nonsensical ways or apply the wrong filters for different user roles. And any designer needs to take the time upfront to understand user requirements and the nature of the data that will populate the displays.

Ideally, report developers and design experts work together to create an effective series of dashboard displays, complementing their knowledge and expertise. This partnership can serve as a professional bulwark against the sometimes misguided wishes of business users. Although it’s important to listen to and incorporate user preferences, ultimately the look and feel of a dashboard should remain in the hands of design professionals. For example, most companies today entrust the design of their Web sites and marketing collateral to professional media designers who work in concert with members of the marketing team. They don’t let the CEO dictate the Web design (or shouldn’t anyway!)

There are many good books available today to help dashboard teams bone up on visual design techniques. The upcoming second edition of my book, “Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing Your Business” has a chapter devoted to visual design techniques. Many of the concepts in the chapter are inspired by Stephen Few whose “Information Dashboard Design” book is a must read. Few and others have drawn inspiration from Edward R. Tufte, whose book, “The Visual Display of Quantitative Information,” is considered a classic in the field. Tufte has also written “Visual Explanations,” “Envisioning Information” and “Beautiful Evidence.”

Posted by Wayne Eckerson on July 27, 2010


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