As you can probably imagine, with some 15 million customers in the UK alone, we hold a lot of data at Aviva. So much so, we’ve now created a global data science practice (Aviva Quantum) working across 16 countries, where we build a deep, data-driven understanding of our customers and their needs. Along with that comes huge amounts of daily and monthly reporting and turning all that data in to something visual and usable. 

One of the most frequently used reporting methods is a dashboard. This is essentially a visual summary of various pieces of important information, typically used to give an overview of how you are doing against your goals, targets and success measures. It’s a valuable way of updating your trustees, colleagues and grant givers and sparking conversations around what’s working and what’s not. Maybe you already create one in your organisation?

A well-designed dashboard can be a great asset to providing numbers into the hands of many across your organisation. However, delight can quickly be replaced by despair as it’s all too easy to find yourself caught up in a time-consuming production cycle questioning whether anyone is finding this information useful.  In this article we share our top tips to getting and staying in a positive place with any dashboards you create in your own organisation.

Example dashboard design

Tip 1: Place the most important content at the top

This might seem to be stating the obvious but it’s surprising how often this doesn’t happen. The challenge here is working out what is most important. There are two assumptions regularly applied. One assumption is that information for senior people must go at the top. A second assumption is you must start with information about the total population (on the basis all other metrics refer to population sub-sets) and it seems logical to start at the “top”. The most important information should answer the question that is asked the most times. 

If your dashboard is going to be used by a wide variety of people, consider personalising pages and having multiple pages to your dashboard to suit particular audiences. The most important metric for one user may not be the same for all. With the modular design of many dashboard creation tools, this often produces a better, more relevant, solution for users that doesn’t increase the time it takes to produce the dashboard. Get some user input and feedback – engaging with dashboard users to understand what they would like to know and what will change as a result of knowing the answer will help determine the most important information to sit at the head of the dashboard. 

If you are creating a new dashboard, consider what the honeymoon period might be. New initiatives often generate a hive of activity at launch with almost obsessive monitoring of changes. These numbers are generally less interesting a few weeks in. You might want to consider using a launch section to a dashboard that is refreshed more frequently and has an agreed stop date once there is no longer the need to have high frequency updates.

Don’t let focussing on the top of the dashboard mean you get lazy at the bottom. Every piece of content needs to answer a question – if not, hit the delete key.

Tip 2: Choose the right metric

This is the critical component in keeping your dashboard informative and actively used over time. Defaulting to the regular targets in your organisation is not uncommon but does not necessarily mean they are the most useful. Are the measures you’re reporting on something your audience feel they can influence? 

Are the targets appropriate to achieve? For example, it would be an admirable aspiration to have a goal to double donor numbers, but if you’re tracking at only 5% growth this is somewhat unrealistic without a clear strategy to change direction. Tracking an unrealistic target and colouring it red won’t help.

A more engaging metric for those tasked with increasing donor numbers might be to look at whether you are closing the gap. Month on month tracking with a target to beat the previous months growth is likely to feel more relevant. 

Another consideration for each metric is whether the absolute value is of most interest. Would a comparison referenced to another data point add more value? If anything you’ve reported on is met with the response “it would be interesting to know…” it should be explored further to avoid the need for a wealth of comparisons that are tricky to produce and of unclear purpose what question they support.

Tip 3: Defining an appropriate level of detail

How much history do you really need? It can be tempting to include a large amount of historic data, but this is precisely the time to challenge what purpose that history is serving by including it. In the majority of cases, dashboards are introduced to provide access to a data view of what’s happening right now. Unless what happened two years ago is relevant to what’s happening now, a lengthy history is unlikely to be required. Keep it clean, strip time periods back to a realistic and relevant reference window. 

Accuracy is always a consideration when presenting data and dashboards are no exception but take a minute to consider what level of detail will be appropriate for your audience. When discussing monetary values, do your senior stakeholders such as trustees quote the pence alongside the pound values? Do they round in appropriate units and refer to numbers in thousands? The underlying numbers need to stack up and be accurately calculated using the absolute values but the value you display should talk in the same language as your dashboard users. Most dashboards could benefit from some additional formatting of the numerical values such as rounding up numbers or reduction of decimal places. Small adjustments can really help the important data points stand out.  

Equally don’t go too far the other way and round up too far so that the numbers don’t ever seem to move. This requires a bit of trial and error if you are measuring something for the first time to find the sweet spot of enough but not too much detail.

Tip 4: Choose the right visual

Dashboards that provide the most value are the ones that are easy to digest. Ideally it will be easy to absorb what the visuals are communicating without having to work excessively to figure it out. Dashboard tools are notorious for using a wide variety of quirky visuals to make dashboards look ‘interesting’. However, this is often at the expense of ease of interpretation.

  • Avoid pie charts and donut charts if you are inviting your reader to draw comparisons. Bar charts are far quicker and more accurate to interpret.  
  • Only use line charts when the data points have a natural sequence, almost always a time sequence. 
  • If you’re unsure, we’d recommend looking at some of the many resources on the internet that give guidance on choosing the right chart making it easy to adopt best practice. You might like to look at:

Choosing the right visual for a dashboard introduces another consideration. What will this chart look like over time? How much movement do we realistically expect? If a metric is limited in the expected movement over time, consider whether a data visual is needed. Stating the absolute value could be more appropriate. 

Tip 5: Invest time in your creative design

There will always be an element of subjectivity as to what looks best but adopting a few core principles can help make your dashboard appealing.

There is often a desire to cram everything onto a single page for ease of use. This might have been helpful when printed versions were popular, but today most solutions are circulated digitally and this is less of a necessity. Make use of whitespace – allow each visual to have the space it requires to comfortably tell its message to improve readability. Whitespace on dashboards is like pausing when speaking, it helps us avoid overload and concentrate on absorbing the prioritised information in front of us. The easiest way to create more whitespace is to remove all unnecessary detail from your dashboard. Do you really need a chart title and axis label that say broadly the same thing?

Choice of colours and consistent use of colour help us navigate dashboards. Dashboard users assume a colour category on one chart has the same meaning on another so where possible maximise consistency. If your organisation has preferred colours it may be helpful to adopt these to signpost your data to stand out relative to other providers. When looking to create stand out of specific data points, a more muted colour can help to provide contrast. Subtle greys are regularly used to subdue some data points with a stand out colour to draw attention to a particular point. 

When setting up your dashboard, check your design works under all circumstances. Test some extreme data values to be sure your design still works and you haven’t lost part of a chart off the scale. If you’re setting up a new dashboard it might help to simulate some data to give the illusion of the dashboard appearance after six months in operation, a helpful check to see if you successfully adopted the earlier tips!

Once you’ve designed and built your dashboard, it needs to work hard and pay back on your invested effort. Help your users get familiar with it, strike up a conversation that leans on the content to highlight its value and one final golden rule, if a question can be answered using the dashboard – share the dashboard so new users become advocators of your masterpiece.