During some recent customer visits and conversations, I began noticing a significant trend among data visualizations and dashboard displays. The abundant use of dials, gauges, charts and graphs had been heavily adopted and implemented into many, many performance management practices. These data visualizations were beautiful – some were even admirable in their complexity. Ten items on a pie chart? So colorful! Dual axis on a bar chart? It’s a space saver! Despite such beauty, color, awesomeness and space-saving, though, these executive dashboards were offering little more than a pretty picture. And pretty pictures are not and never have been the purpose of a dashboard. Allow me to elaborate.

The purpose of a dashboard – in fact, of any visualization or report – is to answer a question. This critical point can actually make the difference between a High Performing Organization that is using data as a tool to further their progress versus a company that sees their business dashboard as a means to monitor their results. Allow me to elaborate, again.

When you look at your speedometer in your car, you aren’t generally monitoring how fast you're going. What you really need to know is, are you speeding? The same can be said of the visualizations that pepper your BI and reporting solutions.

My golden rule is that each item on a dashboard should clearly answer a question. In fact, it should be so clear that it could actually be the title of the visualization.

An example: I recently saw a chart that showed Total Sales and Units Sold. It had a really neat dual axis with amounts on one side and units on the other. It honored all the normal best practices of visualizations – clear colors, not too busy, etc. But what it didn’t have was a question.

What did the business need to know? What could they learn from it that would help them further their progress? Depending on the question, other presentations might have been more useful, such as:

  • Have we reached our sales target this month? By incorporating a target number into the chart, the answer would be clear and action could be taken.
  • What is the correlation between total sales and units sold? Though quantity is good to know, it doesn’t help whoever has to manually calculate this key inquiry.
  • Have my sales been increasing or decreasing over time? A trend report would show this best of all with some flexibility in what periods of time are displayed.

See where I’m going here? Questions are key to getting results that not only drive action but drive the business forward. It’s a tricky task but definitely worth it. If you’re ready to get started, I’ve put together some of my top tips and tricks for data visualization right here. Let’s get going!

  • A “dual axis” might as well be called an “axis of evil.” Charts are intended to compare – this is their sole function. By having two axis’ with different scales (or even worse, different contexts like $ and #) you are forcing the consumer to look harder to get their answer. Why add that burden? I might forgive you if you are trying to spot correlation, but even then that would probably best be displayed in a different way.
  • No question generally leads to no answer. Make sure you are presenting a clear answer to a question with all the right information – no more, no less. This keeps it easy to consume so people can spend less time interpreting and more time acting.
  • Focus on actionable information. If your speedometer says you are speeding (or going too slow), you do something about it. Your executive dashboard should be doing the same thing by telling you that you’re underdelivering, on target or exceeding goals. Even better if it just sends you a message alerting you that there's a problem so you don't even have to look.

So when you look at your dashboard ask yourself: what is it you need to know? Is it truly answering that question clearly and concisely? Does everyone else that uses it have the same question and does it work for them? If not, now is the time to get the questions and answers right. For more information on a dashboard that delivers, watch this quick webinar.

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