Whether you are a CEO, VP Product or a Web Developer, you are constantly evaluating your progress through a series of metrics or analytics, and generally against pre-defined goals. But, are you using the right dashboard to track your metrics day-to-day, and does your dashboard contain rich enough data to allow you to act proactively to ensure you reach your goals?

I recently read the book called Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data by Stephen Few. Although it took some digging to find real value, there were great nuggets of wisdom scattered throughout.

Getting back to the sole premise of a dashboard – its purpose is to act as a visual display of the most important information (note: not ALL information) needed to track progress toward your stated goals. In designing your dashboard, it is extremely important that the information is consolidated onto a single screen so that each metric being tracked can be viewed together – at a glance – so that the user can pick up on any trends and relationships between metrics and overall goals.

The book cites two great quotes that drives this concept home and explores a new facet of this equation, our visual perception:

“Dashboards and visualization are cognitive tools that improve your ‘span of control’ over a lot of business data. These tools help people visually identify trends, patterns and anomalies, reason about what they see and help guide them toward effective decisions. As such, these tools need to leverage people’s visual capabilities.” (Source: Richard Brath and Michael Peters, Dashboard Design: Why Design is Important)

“[We should be interested in visualization because the human visual system in a pattern seeker of enormous power and subtlety. The eye and the visual cortex of the brain form a massively parallel processor that provides the highest-bandwidth channel into human cognitive centers. At higher levels of processing, perception and cognition are closely interrelated. However, the visual system has its own rules. We can easily see patterns presented in certain ways, but if they are presented in other ways, they become invisible… If we can understand how perception works, our knowledge can be translated into rules for displaying information. Following perception-based rules, we can present our data in such a way that the important and informative patterns stand out. If we disobey the rules, our data will be incomprehensible or misleading.” (Source: Colin Ware, Information Visualization: Perception for Design, Second Edition)

Limitations of Man

Unfortunately, even the best of us are limited by our biological construct. Humans have limited short-term memory capacities and this is the main reason why information that belongs together shouldn’t be fragmented across multiple pages or dashboards. Once one set of information is no longer visible, it loses its position in short-term memory (unless you have a photographic memory, I suppose); on the flip-side, if all information is within one field of view, your brain can rapidly process information to and from your short-term memory. [HR Moment: If you’re hiring, consider those with photographic memories for data analyst positions!]

Effective Design

To design a most-effective dashboard, ensure to only include information that you absolutely need, in its most summarized form (without the loss of crucial value). This is where the KISS principle (”Keep It Simple, Stupid”) shines bright. The information should be well organized, condensed, specific to its audience/objectives and displayed concisely and clearly with emphasis on the data itself and not on background graphics or fancy designs (which tend to lose meaning and value quickly).

In reading the book, there were a few graphs that I found used space in a very effective way, whilst also allowing the dashboard reader to effectively take in a number of data points in a glance. The first of those graphs is called the “Bullet Graph” (details of how it works in diagram):

The second graph is called a “Pareto Chart” and below is demonstrated in a sales capacity, which quickly shows off what proportion of overall sales is contributed to by each product. Think about measuring the sales quota of each sales employee as a percentage of total sales (this will help sales managers know who to keep and who to let go using a clear and measurable decision-making tool:

My favourite graph, however, is the Sparkline. Its simplicity is unmatched and its span can be adjusted according to the scale you which to present. It is also great for summarizing large datasets into a small graphics that can be displayed alongside each other in dashboards. Sparklines are particularly good for analyzing trending data. In fact, this is used by Google in its Google Analytics product (below, Sparklines on the left of data and represent 3-month trending curves).

At the end of the book, Few shows a few sample designs of dashboards. I think these are among the best dashboards I have ever seen from a design, usability, trending and notifications standpoint. I have included images of dashboards for both sales managers and CIOs below, as designed by Stephen Few and presented in the book.

Sales Dashboard

(Source: Information Dashboard Design, by Stephen Few)

CIO Dashboard

(Source: Information Dashboard Design, by Stephen Few)

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