Designing Insightful Dashboards for Decision Making

By Special Guest
Anton Baturan, director of User Experience Design, Ness Digital Engineering
September 21, 2017

As businesses continue to accumulate data that has the potential to improve operations and increase revenue, dashboard design is becoming a key component of many solutions.  Although there’s a known need for dashboards that deliver important insights, there still seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding about why, what and how data and insights should be recognized. Organizations should examine three key areas when they’re developing or working with a partner to develop dashboards: the specific purpose of the dashboard, how to define its value, and the role design plays in this process. 

The Purpose of the Dashboard

Businesses sometimes don’t understand that defining the purpose of the dashboard in concrete terms is the first step in the design process, and that dashboards, or any other capability that provides value to users, do not themselves, represent value. 

Underpinning this is the Data Myth. While in some cases the current mantra of data = value is true, specifically where the data is highly unique, in most cases data is, or has become through the continuous accumulation, a raw commodity. Distilling actionable insights from vast amounts of rich data is what actually makes data valuable. 

To illustrate, the requests to create a dashboard usually come packaged with the following false assumption:

Data + Dashboard = Value

Although the reality is a bit more complicated, it correspondingly looks closer to this:

Actionable insight + Dashboard = Value

Where actionable insight is:

Data + Value Definition = Actionable Insight

Pivotal to success of any data display, any product in fact, is the value proposition. While this is axiomatic, it’s surprisingly often overlooked. Beyond the technical knowhow, it is the clear understanding of business drivers and the contextual human factors that shape how we define value so that it channels a broad range of requirements into a focused and orchestrated mechanism that makes a measurable impact. 

How to Define Value

Businesses drive the product, including dashboard creation. Most companies start introspectively – but many end there, creating narrow, myopic results. No introspection is complete without context, and to define value, the business self-analysis must be complemented by a broader look at the market and the human factors surrounding the product use. 

The value proposition is obviously not unique to dashboards, and it should be a part of a product or service strategy. What this means is that, reversely, the lack of focus observed in dashboards is usually a symptom of a larger issue – the lack of a holistic product strategy. 

Companies that work on digital platform engineering typically use two types of team exercises to address this problem:  Business Model Canvas (BMC) and Value Proposition Canvas (VPC) workshops. These are common, lean start up tools for developing a holistic understanding of top-level business or product models and for defining user-centric product or service needs, respectively. 

It’s the latter of the two that also explicitly addresses dashboard requirements by aligning business and user goals, or more specifically in b2b and b2we scenarios which dominate dashboard design, that reconcile a product’s business model with a customer’s objectives and an individual user’s needs. 

By contrast, too often we see universal dashboards displaying an overview of everything made for everyone. In other words – stuff – a highly commoditized accumulation of generic data. If it is true that dashboards can be transformative for a business, it is true only if we accept that dashboards are not the static destination, but rather a vehicle that enables users to reach their objectives more effectively. 

The Role of Design

In a recent project, we were asked to design a dashboard for a DevOps type of a product. The brief consisted only of a set of technical productivity tools which we were told are used by engineers and technology managers. Yet, neither the brief nor the conversations with the product owners reflected perspective on user needs, pain points or specific value each piece of data is meant to create. 

The focus was on what technology can do irrespective of any specific need or benefit. As a result, the dashboard we were asked to create would be a universal gateway for all users by displaying a snapshot of all content which would then provide ‘drill down’ access to all the detail. In other words, the dashboard would be an index of technical capabilities made visual, not a way to improve productivity. 

This was a tool for engineers by engineers, where no actual engineers had been consulted as users. They acknowledged the tools used (data), but not what would make the effort valuable or how to orchestrate it to make them more productive. Post-rationalized approaches like this use the dashboards as an invitation to a feature rabbit-hole and approach design in a superficial way. Once you have been invited in you will find the dashboard itself superfluous, if not a gatekeeper. 

Fortunately, the role of design is to challenge situations like this by addressing the problem holistically. From disconnected requirements often focused on outputs, design reaches back to motivations and enables us to weave in human-centred systems focused on outcomes and results. In this engagement, we transformed a wide-ranging technical roadmap into a user-centric product strategy.

And this leads us to another misconception – our primary role as design practitioners is not to design interfaces, but rather to generate human-focused behavioral and interactive systems measured by results. The interface comes about as a natural result of these systems, but does not precede them. 

In this context, dashboard design must be concentrated into the following areas:

  • Recognize, comprehend and reconcile sometimes opposing needs – from stakeholders, users, partners and customers. 
  • Discover and define value – for organizations, for their partners, and for their end users – internal or external.
  • Understand the most effective way for those end users to consume the value and effectively act upon it.
  • Funnel those needs into a cohesive service system by mapping, choreographing and balancing the interaction across all the digital touch points and beyond the screen.
  • Validate. 

No work on dashboards can be detached from the larger product. By focusing on value – for business, partners, customers and above all, actual individuals physically interacting with the product – organizations can create dashboards that bring forth actionable, personally-meaningful insights that deliver efficiency and productivity in the process.

Edited by Mandi Nowitz

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