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While there are many important components that go in to a successful dashboard implementation, in my experience good design is at the core... and good design begins with with defining two key aspects:
1. The purpose (Audience)?
2. The message (Content)?
These might seem like obvious statements, but all too often people get caught up in the technology of the dashboard and loose focus on the reason for the dashboard in the first place (purpose & message).
The first thing to consider when designing any dashboard is the purpose, and by association the audience, of the dashboard.
Successful dashboards are always those that inspire their audience or users to some action based on the information they are presented. Depending on the nature of the audience, however, that action might be very direct and tangible (eg. to make a phone call), might be less direct (eg. to discuss with someone at their next meeting), or might be simply to influence (eg. review some high-level targets).
To help with classification I summarize these styles of dashboards in to 3 broad categories Operational, Performance, and Strategic (see the diagram below).
There aren't any hard and fast rules here, but generally you can classify the purpose of a dashboard by looking at two criteria: 1. the required frequency of the data refresh (eg. monthly, weekly, daily), and 2. the level of detail required in the data being presented (eg. Departmental, Product, Transaction).
Of course some dashboards might have a mix of these classification, however, generally speaking if you mix these classifications too much you are likely to confuse the audience with too little or too much information, and therefore drive down the level of adoption. It is also important to understand that the audience needs might change over time and therefore the dashboard will likely evolve from one classification to another.
The important things is keep the purpose focused, and build more than one dashboard or view if required to address the needs of different audiences.
A key role of a dashboard is also to tell a story, as opposed to simple report, which is just designed to deliver some information. A dashboard by its nature is typically an integration of a number of different pieces of information, that come together in some predefined context.
I also like to think about the dashboard as telling a story because it allows you to apply tried and proven methods during the design phase, in order to ensure the dashboard communicates the message in the most effective way possible.
As you might recall from your high school English classes a good story is typically made up of a number of key aspects:
Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?
These are know as 'the 6 Ws' (or the 5 Ws and one H) and are just as important in communicating Business Intelligence information as they are communicating the news or a good story.
By looking at the information message in this way it can also help quickly identify what kinds of visuals aids might be usual for communicating that aspect of the story.
Who Organizational charts
What (or how much) Graphs (Bars, Line, etc)
Why Multi-variant charts
The 6 Ws can also help make sure the message you are presenting is complete and comprehensive. For more information on effective graphical story telling you can see more detail on my related page.
It is important to be clear and concise about the messages you are trying to deliver, often less is more. For example, in this Project Status dashboard (see below) I have avoided using classic traffic-lights for every item, but instead have only high-lighted (with the Red dot) the project that needs most attention.
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