Dashboards are a wonderful way to check how an organisation’s key indicators are tracking. They can indicate when action is required, when questions need to be asked and inject objective information into the decision making process.
The catch is how do you do it properly? There is surprisingly little written about Dashboards. Edward Tufte’s classic book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, is brilliant in outlining the history of such things, how the graphical display of information has been manipulated over the years, and the most useful ways of imparting information visually. Well worth a skim.
One of the leading academics on dashboarding is Stephen Few. By nature I’m suspicious of gurus, but a dashboard guru isn’t likely to take your money and break up your family, so I’m happy to sign up as a proponent of his ideas. He is the preeminent thinker about such things and I recommend having a look at his website and books before embarking on a dashboard project.
Of course it’s difficult to condense his work into a few bullet points, but the following is a selection of his and Tufte’s suggestions that resonate with me:
- It is not our job to alter or distort what the data says. The data must speak for itself. We have to work out the best way for this to happen.
- The substance is what matters; don’t let decoration overshadow the data.
- We need to make a large volume of data coherent, in a small space, without it looking crowded.
- Ideally we will want to compare actuals with targets/forecasts/plans, or between periods.
Above all else Stephen Few suggests that we need to distil complex and voluminous data into dashboards that are elegant and simple. Too often dashboards are designed to look good or show off the technology, forgetting that the goal is to display the information to the audience in an instantly understandable fashion.
It’s not as hard as it sounds. More later…