The 7 golden rules to creating kickass dashboards

Confusing Dashboard of the Lancia Orca Car

Dashboards are the easiest way to accurately tell your clients how your marketing activities are performing and which actions to take to optimize them. Providing easy-to-understand views, they are the simplest way to convey what you need to convey to top brass, colleagues and clients. This is probably why dashboards are widely used by marketers as a web marketing reporting tool. It is certainly why we founded a company that caters to the dashboard needs of online marketers and SEO specialists.

But, if dashboards are the Shangri-La of reporting, why are so many dashboards created–only to be abandoned along the way?

We regularly witness businesses and agencies deploy tremendous amounts of efforts to create a dashboard and yet fall short short when it comes to making their clients benefit from them permanently. Sure, clients may use them for a while; however, after a certain period, they seem to realize that they haven’t taken any concrete actions to improve results. They’re too busy. They don’t quite “get” the dashboards. They have problems selling the changes to the powers that be. The reasons are endless. The totally end result? The dashboards (and their benefits) fall into a deep, dark abyss.

If the dashboards were truly useful, rather than scratch your head wondering what the heck happened, you’d be celebrating yet another month of fist-pumping results.

So in an ultimate attempt to stop this horrible scourge, here is our best advice to help you create kickass dashboards that will change your client’s perception about reporting.

The 7 golden rules about dashboards

Here are the 7 golden rules to creating kickass dashboards that your clients, colleagues or boss will love and use to make better decisions.

1. Less is more

keep calm because less is more with dashboards

The ability of identifying which metrics to present in a dashboard is the #1 problem. We all tend to add as much information as possible in a report. But remember : less is more!

This is also true for every web analytics or marketing report. When selecting the metrics that you will add to a dashboard, you have to return to basics. Don’t hesitate to ask yourself these existential questions:

  • What is the business trying to accomplish?
  • What are the business’ strategic goals?
  • What are the actions that need to be taken to reach these goals?
  • Which metrics can measure the success of theses actions in reaching the organisation’s strategic goals?

Asking theses questions will lead you to Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These are the ones you must add to your performance dashboard. A dashboard is not made for exploration (read – advanced reporting). It’s serves people who want to see, at a quick glance, how things are going and what they should do about it. Yes, we are repeating this over and over, but we won’t stop until this is understood by every marketer on Earth!

And by the way, if you want to create a more specific dashboard, you still have to identify the critical most meaningful and actionnable metrics for your or your client.

I’m often asked about the ideal number of metrics in a dashboard. This is no magic number but, 10 is somewhat a good place to start. Google Analytics Dashboards have a 12 “widgets” limit and that’s perfectly fine by me.

2. Know your audience

Know your audience when it comes to dashboards

You can’t go wrong with an organisation’s key performance indicators (KPIs). But, knowing who will use the dashboard you create can help you tremendously.

The level of detail should not be the same for all clients. Managers generally want high view metrics like transactions and revenues while specialists need more precise information to do their work.

The perspective also changes for each type of audience. One metric may have enormous importance for a certain business unit and not at all for an other one. You may even want to change the report’s time horizon to better suit your audience’s needs. In other words, there are a lot of factors you must be consider while conceiving a dashboard for a certain audience.

3. Context is everything

Context is everything

Data without context doesn’t mean anything! Never ever give a number without giving a context. For example, is an average conversion rate of 4 % is good? Who knows! It may be an incredible result for a business–but totally alarming for another one.

To give your audience a hand in analyzing the results shown in a dashboard, you should always give them a sense of scale. How? By making comparisons. What was the conversion rate at that period last year? What was it last period? What’s the website average conversion rate? Even better, you should compare between segments. How is the conversion rate for each traffic source?

But watch out! You don’t want to fall in the trap of adding to much information to you dashboard. Then, it becomes a mind-numbing splash of numbers–and never-ending questions that may or may not be relevant.

You probably know really easily when you business is performance and when it’s not just by looking quickly to you numbers, but your readers don’t. So if you want them to them to look at your report more than one, be sure they understand by making comparisons.

4. Be visual

Be visual with dashboards

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. That’s pretty much the idea behind dashboards. After all, it is a visual way to present a statistical report.

Once the right metrics are chosen for your dashboard, you must be sure they will be understood rapidly.

How? By working with visual elements. And I’m not referring to fancy icons, 3D effets or Hollywood blockbuster movies. These things often mess everything up by complicating the user’s life. The most simple graphs are always the easiest one to understand. So, working with visual elements does’t mean trying to impress people with crazy features (I’m not neglecting the fact that it may has a role in getting the needed attention, but if the information in the dashboard is useful, you shouldn’t need to entertain with make-up). We’re talking here about transmitting information with visual elements. It’s kind of a user experience thing. Work your dashboard like a web designer expert in order to make it more usable. For instance, you could play with point size or add bold to give importance to certain elements.

The position of each element is also important. The most important metrics should definitely be at the top of the report. Regrouping complementary or similar metrics together is also a good idea!

Icons can help users as long as they can understand them. Too often, we see icons that we can’t understand. It’s the case of artists gone wild. Be sure to use a universally understood icon. Add little mobile phone icon can help when talking about mobile traffic, for example.

Colors can be used to give more information on a metric as long as it is really used to give information! Green, yellow and red will always be a good pattern to talk about performance. And if you use it to tag segments, don’t forget to add a clear legend.

We won’t talk in detail about the chart types because this subject should have a dedicated article. But remember that each chart type is best at demonstrating certain things. A pie chart won’t help you in illustrating the big variations your conversion rates have gone through recently. Asking yourself what you want to demonstrate with the graph is a good first step. Do you want to compare, show the distribution (over time for example), analyze the composition or illustrate the relationship between two elements?

Here is a little guide to help you choose the chart that suits your needs.

Chart suggestions for a dashboard report

This golden rule can be summarized this way: dashboards are limited in space and information, so make good use of every pixel!

5. Guide your audience

Guide your audience

Being visual is probably the biggest advantage of the dashboard. It is also its biggest weakness.

As a web marketing consultant, I love dashboards. I have to admit, though, that some clients may need more guidance than others. A client once told me to stop sharing a dashboard in his organization because each business unit was interpreting it in a favorable way for their needs. They were seeing different things in the same charts. And believe me, my dashboard was crystal clear. So we decided to let go of the dashboard and to replace it by a written report. I was literally writing what I was seeing in the dashboard and sending that report to the organization. Now let’s be honest, it was a very, very, very political organisation. You probably won’t have to do this. But this example shows that you need to be very discerning with how you present your dashboards.

You can help you users to go in the right direction in adding comments and notes to the dashboard. This way, you will eliminate misinterpretations.

6. Add useful functionalities

useful functionalities

The features offered by your dashboard tools is also an important aspect. They can really help boost user adoption rates.

The way people access the dashboard may seem simplistic, but really important. Is it accessible on every device? Is it a document that has to be shared or a link that you can add to your favorites? Can you always have access to the latest version of it?

Adding interactivity has some benefits too. Is it possible to change the observed period? When your mouse hovers over a graphic, do you get more details, such as dates and exact numbers?

Is it possible to print the report or share with with others? If yes, how can you share it? In what format?

These questions may seem overly obvious or secondary, but even the most brilliant dashboard won’t be used by someone who is determined to receive it by email in PDF format (like every other report he or she has received).

7. Make it evolve

Make your dashboard evolve

Lastly, make it evolve with your business!

Over time, a lot of things will change: your business objectives, the marketing mix you use, your boss, your client’s boss and, without a doubt, your focus.

Your dashboard will have to adapt to theses changes or people will stop using it. In fact, if it doesn’t evolve, it’s probably because nobody used it since you didn’t apply all 7 golden rules!

Bonus tip: Centralize your dashboards

Your marketing tool aren’t necessarily compatible with each other. You may end up using only one dashboard per tool: one for Google Analytics, another for Facebook, a small one for MailChimp, and probably one or two more for all the internal metrics you have in business systems (lead, sales, etc.).

Instead, you should use a tool that lets you centralize your reporting. This way, you will be able to create a dashboard that lets you easily fallow all your marketing activities in one single place.

Yeah, you could manually import statistics in Excel, but we recommend DashThis or any other tool that will make you life easier and the task less daunting.

Final thoughts on dashboards

As you have now realized, we didn’t speak much about technical elements. I could have mentioned which type of graphs or metrics have best served me. The issue here is that the technical aspect IS secondary. If you follow each of these golden rules, the foundation of your dashboards will be solid as hell and the technical stuff will be a piece of cake. You just have to know why you doing what you do. Then, people will understand what you are presenting them–and better act upon the results.

At this point, you will already be ahead of your competitors, since they’re all loosing their time searching for cool tools with NASA-type features (or ruing the day they got introduced to Excel).

Antoine, aka. Tony, has been in the field of digital ecommerce and marketing for the past ten years. Ranging from marketing analyst in a large corporation, to web marketing specialist in a small agency, to independent consultant for small and large business alike, he’s been involved in the ins and outs of inbound marketing, analytics, SEO and SEM for years. Currently Chief Operating Officer at DashThis, Tony has his hands in everything… but he’s still a marketer at heart.

Category: Dashboards, Key Performance Indicators (KPI), KPIs vs metrics, reporting, Tutorials, Uncategorized, Web analytics, What would Tony do | Tags: , , , 3 comments »


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