7 things every dashboard should include

Despite the popularity of dashboards in business, there's a huge variability in the quality of dashboard design and setup. We recommend 7 key characteristics that every great dashboard should have. Do your dashboards have these?

Clean layout 

Still using primary colours and 3D pie charts? I hate to break it to you, but they're a terrible way to show data. Edward Tufte's famous principle of 'data ink' from his book 'The visual display of quantitative data' directs the designer to minimise the amount of ink on a printed dashboard not telling the story of data. If you create a relevant report in a clean format, it should speak for itself without dated looking bells and whistles. 

Traceability 

Any dashboard is only as good as the data that goes into it. How many mistakes or omissions have you found in reports, especially those manually produced? We recommend structuring reports in a way that any figure can be proved by tracing back to the underlying process or system

Actionable metrics

Do your metrics pass the 'so what' test? This is a test I learned early in my career developing dashboards for a particularly blunt manager - I'd talk through a new report or metric in his office. 'So what' was invariably the question that was asked whilst explaining the importance of a specific figure. If you can't answer this question, why is the metric on the report? You should ask this regularly to make sure your dashboards stay relevant. 

View by the most relevant categories

There will undoubtedly be a number of lenses through which you look at your business, such as geographical, by business unit, by salesman etc. We recommend displaying tables and charts by default using the most relevant categories. If the report audience cannot see the split of a metric across the business it will lose relevance. 

Self-service filters 

Dashboards are often used by stakeholders across entire businesses, and it's difficult to design a dashboard that pleases all of the audience, all of the time. Some will create multiple reports, for example by region, but this is short-sighted from both a process and maintenance perspective. We find report filters, adding drop-down menus to narrow down the report by specific criteria allow reports to maintain relevance across wide audiences. 

Drill-down capability

Similar to the above comments on the traceability of metrics, the actionability of those metrics is also key. We recommend adding functionality to easily get to the underlying data in excel with minimal effort. Most leading BI software allows this by default, but make sure that functionality is explained to users and that the right data is exposed. For example, if showing a metric of items past a due date, the ability to drill down to see the IDs or owners of those items would be useful to end users. 

Glossary / Definitions

Business data is complex by nature. The job of the dashboard designer is to bridge the gap between technical and business definitions of metrics and data. Often a business definition isn't understood by an IT team and a technical definition doesn't always make sense to someone in the business. A page of metric definitions or a glossary is the most effective way to ensure the entire report audience is reading the report in the same way. Ensure it is kept up to date, accessible, and it should be referred to as the golden source of information on how the reports are configured.