Dashboard Storytelling

Everyone wants a dashboard and the promise of a world in which the intricacies of your business are clearly laid out on a single page. Dashboards can make running your business as easy as driving a car, where slight adjustments and careful attention to warnings mean smooth sailing on the road to success.

I’m not so convinced. For someone who is, check out the mysterious Dashboard Spy. He/she has a massive collection of dashboard screenshots and describes these precious morsels as "simple to understand and impressive to look at, these scorecards are becoming ’must-haves’ for all enterprises."

If we already live in a dashboard-centric world, we might as well do them right. I see at least three areas where dashboards need improvement: depth, information display, and storytelling.

Depth. Stephen Few makes a worthwhile distinction between dashboards and something he calls "faceted analytical displays" (FADs):

  • A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.
  • A faceted analytical display is a set of interactive charts (primarily graphs and tables) that simultaneously reside on a single screen, each of which presents a somewhat different view of a common dataset, and is used to analyze that information.

We might consider dashboards a static version of FADs (or we could consider FADs a versatile dashboard). If that’s true (and I’m sure Stephen will step in to correct me), then who wants a plain dashboard? Why build something that only raises questions but doesn’t give the user any ability to drill down, explore, tweak parameters, or otherwise try to answer those questions?

Information display. Like most reporting, dashboards suffer from poor information design. Here’s our list of blogs that preach the right way and highlight the offenders. Here are two particularly misguided design approaches that I’ve seen recently...

Just because it is called a dashboard doesn’t mean you need to take the concept literally (via Dashboard Spy)

Just because you can make it shiny doesn’t mean you should. Crystal Xcelsius not only vigorously embraces pie charts, but they add a "reflective kidney bean" to further derail the information display.

Storytelling. Most dashboards are loose affiliations of charts—a hodgepodge of graphics on the same topic intended to offer a full view of a situation. It is the same problem so many people run into in creating PowerPoint presentations.

You want the information to easily slide into the viewer’s brain and stick when it gets there. The best dashboards have story-like features such as:

  • Set the stage. What is the context? Who are the characters?
  • Focus on only the important elements and themes; don’t try to be a comprehensive account of everything that happened. Ruthlessly cut extraneous content.
  • Offer recognizable characters to spare the reader’s precious attention. There is a high cost to asking readers to learn from scratch. For dashboards this means terms, metrics, graphics, and metaphors that are familiar within the organization.
  • Create flow and cohesiveness from chapter to chapter. Themes and characters reappear chapter after chapter. A good dashboard isn’t a bunch of disjointed charts, but a logical flow from one analytical examination to the next.
  • Levels of detail. Some elements of the story span the entire experience; other details provide the insights and seasoning to keep your interest.

Here’s a good example of a dashboard (perhaps FAD) from Visual I-O that has many of these storytelling elements.

In contrast, the following dashboards (courtesy of Dashboard Spy) don’t attempt to explain anything to the reader:

If you’ve seen a worse dashboard, sent it our way and we’ll put together a gallery of the worst of the worst. Please redact any company-specific information.