Dashboard design is becoming a core component of many solutions, especially as businesses keep accumulating data which has the potential to improve operations and increase revenue. Although there’s a known need for dashboards that deliver important insights, there still seems to be a fundamental lack of understanding about why, what, and how data and insights should be recognized.
How many times has a brief or a client conversation started along the lines of: “We have this great data and just need a cool-looking dashboard to showcase it.”? The implication is that with a little bit of makeup data itself will shine. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. When developing or working with a partner in developing dashboards, organizations need to first examine three key areas: the specific purpose of the dashboard, how to define its value, and the role design plays in this process.
Defining the purpose of the dashboard needs to be the very first step
Businesses sometimes don’t realize hat defining the purpose of the dashboard in concrete terms needs to be the first step in any design process, and that dashboards, or any other capabilities that provide greater value to users, do not represent value in themselves.
Underpinning both is the data myth. While in some cases the current mantra of Data = Value is true, specifically where data is unique, in most cases data is, or becomes through continuous accumulation, a raw commodity. Distilling actionable insights from vast amounts of rich data is what makes data valuable.
To illustrate, requests to create a new dashboard usually come packaged with the following false assumption:
Data + Dashboard = Value
Although closer, the reality is rather more complicated; it correspondingly has more of a resemblance to:
Actionable insight + Dashboard = Value
Where actionable insight is:
Data + Value definition = Actionable insight
Pivotal to the success of any data display, any product, is actually the value proposition. While this may be axiomatic, it’s surprisingly often overlooked. Beyond technical know-how, it is the clear understanding of the business drivers and the contextual human factors that shape how we define value so that it channels broad requirements into a more focused and orchestrated mechanism capable of making a measurable impact.
How do you define dashboard value?
Businesses drive products, including dashboard creation. While most companies start introspectively many stop there, creating narrow, myopic results in the process. The inside out view of the product can reﬂect business drivers as well as use case hypotheses. Yet, these hypotheses will be invalid if they are not matched with the outside-in view reflecting the end-user needs and market factors surrounding them. No introspection is complete without context and, to properly define value, business self analysis must be complemented by a broader look at the market and the human factors surrounding the overall product use. The value proposition is obviously not unique to dashboards – it should be part of any product or service strategy. What this means is that, inversely, the lack of focus observed in dashboards is usually a symptom of a larger issue, specifically the lack of an holistic product strategy.
The role of the dashboard is to generate human-focused behavioral and interactive systems that are measured by results
Companies that work on digital platform engineering tend to use two types of team exercises to address this problem: Value Proposition Canvas (VPC) and Business Model Canvas (BMC) workshops. These are common, lean startup tools for both developing an holistic understanding of top-level business or product models and defining user-centric product or service needs, respectively. The latter of the two explicitly addresses dashboard requirements by aligning business and user goals, or, more specifically, in business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-work experience (B2WE) scenarios that dominate dashboard design, and reconcile a product’s business model with a customer’s objectives and an individual user’s needs. By contrast, too often we see universal dashboards displaying an overview of everything made for everyone. Simply put, this is “stuff” – a highly commoditized accumulation of generic data. If it’s true dashboards can transform a business, it is true only if we accept dashboards are not a static destination but a vehicle that enables users to reach their objectives more eﬀectively.
The role design has to play in this process
Picture this scenario: being asked to design a dashboard for a DevOps-related product. The brief consists of only a set of technical productivity tools used by engineers and technology managers. Yet, neither the brief nor conversations with the product owners reﬂects a perspective on user needs, pain points, or specific value each piece of data is meant to create.
The focus becomes what technology can do irrespective of any specific need or benefit. As a result, the dashboard you’re asked to create would be a universal gateway for all users by displaying a snapshot of all content that would then provide drill-down access to all the detail. In other words, the dashboard would be an index of technical capabilities made visual, and not a way to improve productivity.
This is a tool for engineers designed by engineers but where no actual engineers had been consulted as users. They acknowledge the tools used (data), but not what would make the eﬀort valuable or how to orchestrate it to make them more productive.
Post-rationalized approaches like this use the dashboards as an invitation to a feature rabbit-hole and approach design in a superficial way. Once you have been invited in, you will find the dashboard itself superﬂuous, if not a gatekeeper.
Fortunately, design challenges situations like this by addressing the problem holistically. From disconnected requirements often focused on outputs, design reaches back to motivations and enables us to weave in human-centered systems focused on outcomes and results. In this engagement, a wide-ranging technical roadmap is transformed into a user centric product strategy.
This leads us to another misconception – the primary role of design practitioners is not to design interfaces but to generate human-focused behavioral and interactive systems measured by results. The interface is a natural result of these systems, yet does not precede them. In this context, dashboard design must be concentrated into the following five areas:
- Discover and define value – for organizations, their partners, and their internal or external end users
- Recognize, comprehend, and reconcile occasional opposing needs from stakeholders, users, partners, and customers
- Funnel those needs into a cohesive service system by mapping, choreographing, and balancing the interaction beyond the screen and across all digital touch points
- Understand the most eﬀective way for those end users to consume the value and eﬀectively act upon it
At the intersection of information
No dashboard work should be detached from the larger product. To think that a dashboard is an interface problem exclusively is a dangerous error. For many who understand the complexity of data, it may appear like a ﬂat lid on a large box of information troves. Regardless of its size, and indeed it is comparatively small, it is an intricate intersection of behavioral workﬂows and information paths. In that sense, a dashboard may be a thin lid, but it is a lid with a lock.
To unlock the power of dashboards is to focus on business and user value simultaneously. By identifying the value for businesses, partners, customers, and, above all, actual individuals physically interacting with the product, organizations can create dashboards that bring forth actionable and personally meaningful insights that deliver efficiency and productivity.
Anton Baturan is associate VP of experience practice at Ness Digital Engineering