Upcoming book:
Beyond Dashboards

(Feedback needed!)

Source: Dreamstime

Source: Dreamstime

I’ve seen a lot of dashboards fail

Despite the fact that books and courses on information dashboard design have been available for years, many dashboards still fail to meet users' and organizations' expectations. Users have trouble finding answers to basic data-related questions and fail to notice urgent problems because they’re hidden behind clicks, hard to notice, or possibly not even displayed on dashboards. Because of these and other problems, many dashboards still end up under-used or even abandoned.

Based on Nick Desbarats’ experiences designing dashboards for over 50 large organizations and teaching dashboard design to thousands of professionals, Beyond Dashboards uncovers the real reasons why so many dashboards fail to satisfy users and organizations; reasons that go far deeper than the visual design on which most dashboard books and courses focus. Readers will learn a practical, actionable framework for creating a system of purpose-specific displays (problem-scanning displays, metric diagnostic displays, performance monitoring displays, etc.) that enables users to get answers to their data-related questions quickly and easily, including basic ones such as, “Is everything O.K. at the moment?”, often for the first time.

Who should read this book

Beyond Dashboards workshop is written for individuals who are responsible for designing or developing information dashboards for employees, partners and/or customers of their organization. Readers may be business intelligence professionals, data analysts, reporting managers, software developers, user interface designers, or have other, similar roles. Senior managers and other decision-makers who consume dashboards will also find the book to be of value since it will enable them to ask for dashboard designs that help them to be more effective at their jobs. Readers may work in a wide variety of sectors, including finance, manufacturing, technology, health care, banking, insurance, government, military, non-profit, education, and others. No specific technical knowledge is required.

Major topics include:

  • Untangling the word “dashboard”

    • Recognizing that information displays that are often called “dashboards” can have fundamentally different purposes and types of target audiences. Review of the three major categories of dashboards:

      • “Engagement” dashboards for generating interest in a dataset among a broad audience

      • “Storytelling” dashboards for educating or persuading a specific audience

      • “Monitoring” and “analysis” dashboards for enabling an organization’s employees to answer data-related questions and be more productive

    • Note that only “monitoring” and “analysis” dashboards will be discussed in detail in the book.

  • The five types of data-related questions that employees ask:

    • Problem-scanning

    • Metric diagnosis

    • Performance monitoring

    • Slice-and-dice / filtering

    • Complex analysis

  • Why dashboards that attempt to answer more than one type of data-related question almost always fail.

  • The Beyond Dashboards framework: A set of purpose-specific displays

    • Problem-scanning displays for flagging problems and opportunities that require action among potentially thousands or even millions of metric values

      • Why problem-scanning displays are the most challenging type of display to design but also address the most serious and urgent complaints that employees have with conventional dashboards

      • Problem-scanning challenges: 24 causes of hidden gotchas, false alarms, haystacks and decoys

      • Determining which metrics to include and exclude on problem-scanning displays

      • Segmenting problem-scanning displays by user role and review frequency (real-time, daily, weekly, monthly, etc.)

      • Why conventional ways of determining which metrics to flag on dashboards don’t reliably flag metrics that require attention (“hidden gotchas”) and often flag metrics that don’t require attention (“false alarms”)

        • “% change since previous period”

        • “% deviation from target”

        • “Threshold alerts”

        • “Good/satisfactory/poor ranges”

      • The “four-threshold” method for flagging metrics that require attention

      • Using simple statistics to detect and flag problems among thousands or even millions of metrics and metric values

      • Problem-scanning on mobile

      • Examples of well-designed problem-scanning displays

    • Diagnostic displays for diagnosing a metric that’s underperforming, overperforming, or behaving abnormally

      • The four types of information on diagnostic displays that enable a problematic metric to be diagnosed 90% of the time:

        • Child metrics, peer metrics, metric history/forecast, influencer metrics, related metrics

      • The diagnostic cascade: Enabling users to quickly diagnose 90% of problematic metrics on their own, and to save analyst resources for the 10% of problems that require advanced analytical skills to diagnose

      • Examples of well-designed diagnostic displays

    • Performance monitoring displays for assessing organizational or group performance in light of to strategic goals

      • The important differences between problem scanning and performance monitoring and how the metrics on each type of display differ

      • Examples of well-designed performance monitoring displays

      • Common pitfalls when selecting performance measures and goal-setting (brief overview only)

      • Note that general performance management processes such as strategic planning, goal-setting, KPI selection, etc. are not discussed in depth.

    • Slice-and-dice displays for browsing and filtering large datasets such as customers, transactions, or employees

      • Best practices and common design mistakes

      • Examples of well-designed slice-and-dice displays

    • Complex analysis tools for answering ad hoc, complex analytical questions

      • A brief overview of commercial, off-the-shelf software products that meet this need

      • Note that these tools are only discussed in terms of how they fit into the Beyond Dashboards framework.

    • Canned analysis tools for performing pre-configured analysis tasks such as what-if simulation, forecasting, scenario evaluation, etc.

      • Determining which types of analytical questions can be safely answered by non-analysts using self-serve tools, and which require a trained analyst to answer.

      • Examples of canned analysis displays are shown but design principles and best practices for this type of display aren’t discussed in depth since these vary greatly from one tool to another.

      • Note that these tools are only discussed in terms of how they fit into the Beyond Dashboards framework.

  • Navigation and discoverability

    • Designing a home screen that enables users to find answers to different types of data-related questions quickly and easily

    • Linking different types of information displays into a cohesive system that enables users to continue to find answers as new data-related questions arise in their minds

  • Implementation guidance

    • Educating and gathering requirements from users

    • Review of a typical, complete set of information displays based on the Beyond Dashboards framework

    • Recommendations on how and where to start

    • Maintenance and evolution of different types of displays

Topics NOT covered:

  • How to use specific software products to create dashboards. This book is not a software training guide. The fundamental principles and best practices of dashboard design don’t vary based on the software that’s used for implementation.

  • How to create visually impressive dashboards. While visual design best practices are discussed, the goal is to enable readers to create displays that are highly functional and easy to visually consume, and these are usually not visually or artistically impressive.

  • Types of “dashboards” that have purposes other than monitoring and simple data analysis (filtering, sorting, etc.) such as interactive infographics, chart-based presentations, and advanced data analysis tools.

  • Performance management and measurement best practices (organizational and personal goal-setting, strategic planning, KPI selection, etc.), though books on these topics are recommended. Examples of well-designed performance displays are featured, and the book addresses how performance monitoring displays fit into an overall system of information displays.

Feedback needed

Taking a page from one of my favorite authors (pun intended), Dan Pink, I’m going to attempt to crowd-source the editing of this book, and that’s where you come in. In the coming months, I’m going to be posting short excerpts from the new book as blog posts and asking for your feedback. If you hang around long enough, you’ll eventually see all of the major ideas in the book before it’s published, but I know that you’ll still buy it anyway so I’m not worried ;-) If you think that any of my ideas are off-base--even the high-level ones that I’ve discussed here--don’t sugar-coat. Tell me what’s what. That’s exactly the kind of feedback that I’m hoping for.

(To leave a comment about anything on this page, please do so on this identical blog post.)