There are many ways to visualize data. Reports help us dive into the details of a dataset. Some visualizations help us explore data relationships. The ruler of here and now is the dashboard.
A dashboard represents a current-state snapshot of something you have modeled. It could be the entire business, a department, a customer interaction, operational, financial, or a host of other valuable concepts. That snapshot might update in near real time or it might be manually updated and nearly static. It could look at historical data or represent the current projection of future performance. Regardless, the idea is to give the viewer the best picture of the model as quickly as possible.

To accomplish this, dashboards must be designed for simplicity and understanding.

Every business is complex. However, our brains are designed to whisk away complexity and focus only on what is required for our current task. It’s why we are capable of driving, playing an instrument, and all the other wonderfully complex tasks we perform. After working in your business for years, you have developed — consciously or not — an internal filtering mechanism for what you care about. When you begin to build metrics into a dashboard, it is important to be critical about what will go into it because the dashboard doesn’t have intelligence to filter automatically like people do.

Here are key ways to make sure you’re designing for simplicity:

Stay on Topic: The dashboard should tell a story about one specific topic. Whether it is the strategic health of the organization, the operational health of a department, the effectiveness of a campaign, or the efficiency of a production line, know the topic and be careful not to bring in data from adjacent topics. Knowing your audience for each topic can aid in decisions about what is on topic.

Create Your Own Constraints: Put constraints on the number or size of the metrics. If you are on a desktop, limit the dashboard to one screen size. In general, you want to minimize the amount of interaction needed to find your information.

Awareness vs. Understanding: The difference between recognition and understanding is important. You can always create or go to additional sources of data to understand why a metric is reading. What are the metrics that trigger awareness of an issue?

The Right Visualization: You can represent data on dashboards in many ways. Use larger numbers for important discrete information. Use charts for trends (but know they can distort information). Your visualizations should tell a story as quickly as possible while still being clear and accurate.

Now that we have simplified the dashboard, let’s look at it from another perspective to make sure we capture everything.

Is it Comprehensive? Imagine you have no access to anyone in the organization. How do you know if the business (or whatever you are modeling) is functioning well? If a key employee left, would you still be able to have your finger on the pulse? Keep in mind, we are still talking about being aware that everything is going well, but it also needs to be comprehensive enough to minimize surprises. When designing the metrics for a dashboard, the thought process should be centered around this question: “If I was on a deserted island, with no ability to communicate with anyone in our business and only had access to this dashboard, what would I need to see to get the full picture?”

Is it Timely and Actionable? Every for-profit business could be simplified to one metric: profit per year. But is that enough to act upon to ensure that metric stays where you want? For most businesses, analyzing annually is far too late. At the least, that metric must be closer to real time to be actionable. For Kopis as a professional service company, we need to see revenue daily to have enough time to recognize an issue. It could be a project problem with client impact or it could be a utilization problem. Either way, finding out at the end of the month or year is far too long to be actionable.

Final Advice
It’s normal to iterate through Simplification and Understanding multiple times before you are done. Our dashboards evolved for months and even years after we first released them.