May 6, 2011

How to build good dashboard. Part 2: Usage scenario

Once you've decided to build a dashboard you need to plan it. Planing a dashboard actually means two tasks: defining usage scenario and zoning.

To understand usage scenario you'll want to have answers to these questions:
  • Who will use the dasboard? What are their roles in the organization?
  • What are business goals of each user or each particular group of users? What kind of tasks are they trying to accomplish?
  • What information is of primary importance for the user? What is of secondary importance? What is nice to have but not very important?
  • What kind of troubles do users need to identify?
Let's take a closer look at these questions.

User roles
In majority of cases there are 3 main groups of users: regular users, analysts and management users.

Regular users usually work with relatively narrow subject area and always need detailed information about it. They do not do much of ad hoc analysis and usually have pretty straightforward workflow. In terms of dashboard content they usually need balanced mix of gadgets, charts, tables with a few filters.

Analysts work a lot with detailed information in ad hoc manner. Usually dashboards are not the best main tool for them -- they need powerful query & analysis applications. However, dashboards can be good for quick identifying of problems and starting point of analysis. Analyst dashboards usually contain a lot of tables, charts with actual numbers and many filters.

Management users often track set of key performance indicators. They also constantly check actual numbers versus planned/estimated numbers. Besides KPIs they usually want to know best (or worst) products/customers/dealers/etc. So typical management dashboard has a lot of gadgets and charts with actuals and estimates and a few tables with lists of top products, customers, etc. Management users rarely work with detailed data so it's better not to use large tables for them.

Goals and Tasks
Make sure that dashboards have obvious and distinct indicators that show progress towards reaching strategic and/or operational goals. These goals can be either rarely changed -- "static" goals like annual targets or operational benchmarks, or "dynamic" goals like goals of short-time projects, marketing campaigns, reorganizations etc. When planning a dashboard keep groups of "static" and "dynamic" goals separately.

Priority and Importance
Prioritization is a key to building good dashboard. When designing a dashboard we need to deal with 2 key limitations: a) limited screen space, and b) limited human ability to read and prioritize information from many visual objects. And keep in mind that b) is more significant than a) -- Moore's low doesn't work for humans (unfortunately). Hence, it is very important to make more important information more eye-catching, easy to read and understand. However, we can't have 500 or 100 very important things in our dashboard -- average human can't track more than 20 important indicators and even 20 is a lot. Therefore, we need to prioritize carefully and plan working space of a dashboard accordingly. The less important is information -- the more clicks/actions/time should be necessary to get it.

Identification of Troubles
Make sure that you understand what are major problems/troubles that users want to identify with the dashboard. Try to make list of them -- it shouldn't be very long. Then make sure that every trouble will be obviously indicated in the dashboard -- either with different color or shape, special gadget, eye-catching flag or alert message that is invisible in normal conditions.

In Part 3 I will talk about zoning.