Include visual flags on dashboards!!! (book excerpt)

tl;dr: This excerpt from my upcoming book, Beyond Dashboards, is the first in a seven-part series of posts on how to determine which metrics to visually flag on a dashboard (i.e., with alert dots, different-colored text, etc.) in order to draw attention to metrics that require it. In this post, I briefly discuss why visual flags are almost essential in order for dashboards to deliver the user traction, satisfaction and value that organizations hope for and expect, and why a lack of visual flags has contributed to the failure of many dashboards.

One of the points that I emphasize when I teach dashboard design training workshops is the importance of including visual flags, such as alert dots or conditionally colored text, on dashboards. I have to drive this point home because, unfortunately, the majority of the dashboards that I come across in client organizations and “in the wild” feature few or no visual flags; they just display current values without flagging which ones might require attention. Why does a lack of visual flags decrease the effectiveness of dashboards so much? Well, including effective visual flags on dashboards has a number of major benefits:

  • Visual flags provide context for current dashboard values. If users see only raw metric values with no additional information about how current values compare to business targets, past performance, or other meaningful comparators, there’s a high risk that users won’t know if they should consider current values to be good or bad, normal or abnormal. Without that additional, contextual information, users frequently won’t realize that they need to act on metrics that genuinely require action.

  • Visual flags enable a large number of values to be shown on a dashboard without visually overwhelming users. With well-designed visual flags, a large number of values on a dashboard doesn’t end up looking like a “wall of numbers” since only a few values will be flagged on any given day, week or month, providing the user with visual clues as to where to focus first.

  • Visual flags reduce the time required to review a dashboard since users can quickly scan many values and easily spot those that require attention, and then review the other, non-flagged values in a faster, more cursory manner.

  • Visual flags reduce the risk that even experienced, knowledgeable users will fail to notice metrics that indicate problems that require attention.

Agreeing on criteria for when metrics should or shouldn’t be flagged can be a messy, controversial process within organizations, though, since people often disagree about what should be considered “good” or “bad” ranges for a given metric. Many such disagreements arise because people have different expectations of performance or definitions of organizational success, but there’s another, less obvious source of confusion that I see in these discussions, which is that people often talk about two very different types of visual flagging criteria without realizing it: alert thresholds and performance targets.

In the next post in this series, I’ll look at the differences between alert thresholds and performance targets and why failing to understand those differences has been the source of many unnecessary disagreements within organizations.