Visualizations and Dashboards – A Simple Methodology for Success

Visualizations and Dashboards – A Simple Methodology for Success

David Kusek
Business Analytics Specialist
John Daniel Associates, Inc. 
David’s Profile

This blog post is written as a follow up to a recent webinar I gave on the same subject. The purpose of this post is to provide more context for my ‘Five Pillars of Successful Dashboards and Visualizations’ that were covered in the webinar. A recording of the webinar can be found here.

The idea behind the five pillars is to provide a simplified structure for building successful visualizations and dashboards. Here are two reasons why this approach works:

  1. Simplified processes are more likely to be used. Don’t be quick to dismiss.
  2. Creating useful dashboards and visualizations is about helping people use data to answer questions. There is much more to success than choosing the right visualization for the type of data to be analyzed.

Let’s gets started with the first pillar.

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1. Build with a purpose

This seems obvious, but it is often overlooked. Distill that forty page functional specification into no more than two sentences that defines the purpose for what you are building.

You may say, “Hey, I’m no slave to outdated spec documents and the tools I use allow me to build on the fly.”

Even more reason to define a purpose. Many of the toolsets used in analytics and business intelligence today allow for quick ad hoc and iterative development. Without defining a purpose up front you will waste time making things that don’t matter to your audience.

A good purpose statement…

  1. Identifies an audience
  2. Defines a scope for the data to be analyzed
  3. Describes the actionable outcome for the user

Example of a SIMPLE purpose statement that meets the criteria:
To provide sales and marketing executives with a tool that helps them make buying decisions by visualizing the top five KPIs for the past three years by Customer, Product Line, Region and Store.

And one that doesn’t:
To allow users to answer any questions about sales and marketing in a visual format.

Guess who will have the better outcome? My money is on the former.

2. Keep Asking Why

This one is the most simple! While designing, building, adding or subtracting from your visualizations all you need to do is ask, “Why am I doing what I am doing? Does this serve my purpose statement?”

Now you understand why that purpose is so important. It serves as your measuring stick for anything you do with your visualizations and dashboard.

Example:
Why am I building a choropleth showing sales volumes with the ability to animate change over time?

If it fits well with your purpose statement keep it, otherwise chuck it…. even if it is a “really cool” visualization.

3. Have a Vision

In its most simple form, a vision is about what’s next. If what you are building may only be used for a few weeks, you know that it is a throw away. In this case, vision is less important. But if what you are building will live on for a long time and possibly be modified by multiple iterations you should consider your vision.

Having a vision means answering these questions in terms of today and in the future:

  • How will users access?
  • Where will users access?
  • What will be most important?
  • What type of story should be told?
  • What bumps or road blocks might we face after deployment?
  • How will changes be made?
  • How will we determine if the dashboard or visualization is serving its purpose?

One tool that I find particularly helpful with developing a vision for the content of my visualizations and dashboard is a question flow map. A question flow map is built in conjunction with the people who will use what you are building. The purpose is to map out multiple lines of questioning and design your dashboard to answer as many of those questions as quickly as possible. The underlying idea is that when a question is answered it often leads to another question. That line of related questions can be strung together to create an intelligence thread.

A simplified example:

Question Flow

Here we start with a KPI but ultimately the questions are leading to causality. You would then build an easy way for the users to take this path.

4. Include Feedback Loops

Feedback loops are a critical component of building visualizations and dashboards that hit their purpose statement. If your only touch points with the end users are during requirements gathering and delivery of the final solution, you will miss the mark more times than not.

During each phase of the development cycle different types of feedback tools can be used.

Early Stage:

  • Mockups
  • Whiteboard sessions
  • Question flow maps

Middle Stage:

  • Sneak peaks at development progress
  • Purpose statement reality check sessions with your users

Late Stage:

  • Post-delivery survey

5. Steal Great Design

Great design is universal. Use the many resources available via the web and printed text to help get you started or to identify the best possible way to display your data. While it is unlikely you will find something that is identical to your purpose statement, you can find inspiration for solving your challenge.

Follow blogs about the technology that you build with, but also branch out and look for inspiration in other technologies. When checking out new visualizations, I find open charting engines like d3.js to be great starting points for discovering and learning new ways to solve my development challenges.

One word of caution… Be mindful of the Frankenstein dashboard. Pulling bits and pieces from multiple places can lead to a disjointed user experience. This can be overcome by making sure all things fit your purpose statement as well as unifying any visual design elements.

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Using this simplified methodology should help you avoid the most dreaded outcome in visualization and dashboard design; building something that no one uses!

Provide comments on tools or methodologies that have helped in your design and development of visualization and dashboards.