Thoughts on “7 Rules for Dashboard Design” post on Dashboard Insight

This post addresses a post on Dashboard Insight’s site titled, “7 Small Business Dashboard Design Dos and Dont’s”

Hi Stacey,

I read your post with great interest, after all, who wouldn’t like to know the 7 rules of dashboard design? As soon as I got to the 19th word of your post, “colorful” I knew that we’d have some interesting differences in our viewpoints.

So let’s start with how you define a dashboard. I agree with most of your definition, especially the part about face-smacking insights. Certainly a useful dashboard should provide the reader with insights. But does a dashboard need to have “gorgeous colorful graphs?” I think not. In fact, if the dashboard designer uses too many colors in their graphs, they can kiss those face-smacking insights goodbye. I think it would be better to say that an insightful dashboard needs color use to be, restrained. The designer needs to be sparing with his/her use of color so that when color is used, the reader’s eyes are immediately drawn to the thing that the designer is emphasizing. Use color everywhere and it becomes meaningless.

I agree with your rule #1 (start with a few key business metrics, don’t waste time collecting everything), and whole-heartedly agree with your rule #2 (use basic tools that you already have). In fact, I’d recommend that most people, beginners and experts alike, use the combination of Excel with XLCubed. XLCubed gives the designer the ability to create very small and crisp sparklines, microbarcharts, bulletcharts, and other useful graphics.

Rule #3 could be summed up as two rules. First, use simple line charts. And second, don’t try to compare things (this month to last month) on your dashboard, it’s never a good idea.

I’m all for simple charts, after all, most complicated charts are a result lazy design (exception is Napeloeon’s march). A good dashboard designer takes the time to ensure that his/her charts are almost instantly insightful. Complex, hard to read charts are almost never instantly insightful.
The second part of your rule #3, that is, don’t make two point comparisons, really surprised me. The most insightful dashboards I’ve seen are ones where the reader can instantly see if a critical measure is above or below last month, or last year, or if a measure is over or under forecast. For that, you absolutely have to compare two points. Further, check out Stephen Few’s bullet charts. They’re all about comparing two things, actual to forecast, test to control, this to that, and that to this. In fact, one rule all dashboard designers might want to follow is to ask themselves this question when including a measure on their dashboard, “Compared to what?” I got that one from Stephen Few.

Rule #4 about Pareto charts, I’m just not a big fan. Yes, the 80/20 rule is an important one to know about, but the actual Pareto chart violates your first rule of rule #3, it ain’t that simple. Dual Axes with a line and a bar on the same graph just isn’t all that intuitive. I agree with your second rule of rule #4, no pie charts, although some info viz bloggers are pushing back against that one, like Jorge Camoes here.

Rule #5, don’t go all Picaso on it. Agree. I agree too when you say ‘limit your creativity to use of colours,’ so long as you mean that colours should be used sparingly and to call out the most important things to monitor on the dashboard.

Rule #6, Monitor your dashboard weekly. Agree 100%. Monitor that dashboard. After all, if you don’t check it out to see how things are doing, what good is it?

Rule #7, Get help from someone who’s ok with Excel and charting, not from someone who’s selling you the software. For most BI vendors out there, I agree with your assessment.

I applaud your efforts to put down rules for small business dashboard designers to follow. And your points about well-designed dashboards helping business owners monitor their businesses is right on point.

Lastly, there’s a small and passionate community of dashboard designers on the web. You can find some great advice from Stephen Few’s website. He’s also published 4 excellent books about information visualization, one focusing exclusively on dashboard design.

Thanks,

John C. Munoz

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on “7 Rules for Dashboard Design” post on Dashboard Insight

  1. John,

    Great review of Stacey Barr’s blog post at DBI ( http://www.dashboardinsight.com/articles/digital-dashboards/fundamentals/7-small-business-dashboard-design-dos-and-donts.aspx ). If you had taken the time to review who Stacey Barr was a little before you did your review, you would have found out she is very passionate about performance metrics. I think that is her strength. Her data visualization skills are not on par with her metrics building skills. She works with small business owners in in Australia. I have followed her work, listened to some of her tele-seminars. I read her blog. She is very passionate about what she does, as are you.

    I like the way you dissected each of the 7 rules.

    I have a bit of an issue with rule 3. You are both right and wrong. Month over month data data in and of itself tells you nothing. The context that I think Stacey was writing, “like profit, revenue, cash flow, new leads, website visitors”, she is right. You said “actual to forecast, test to control” and you are right. It depends on what you are measuring and that I think we can all agree.

    John, you closed your comments with, “You can find some great advice from Stephen Few’s website. He’s also published 4 excellent books about information visualization, one focusing exclusively on dashboard design.”

    I wonder if Stacey Barr knows who Stephen Few? Let’s see what her website site says: “Stacey Barr is one of those rare individuals who combines exceptional professionalism with all the qualities that I look for in a friend.

    Since we first met two years ago, I’ve grown to appreciate Stacey as a trusted colleague, and manage to stay in touch with her, even though half the globe separates her office in Brisbane from mine in Berkeley.

    When those who attend my courses in dashboard design ask for help in learning to measure performance – something you must know how to do before you can design effective performance monitoring displays – I encourage them to consider Stacey.

    If you work with her, I’m confident that you’d not only achieve great outcomes but would also enjoy the journey along the way.”

    Stephen Few, author of “Information Dashboard Design”, “Now You See It” and “Show Me the Numbers”"

    URL: http://www.staceybarr.com/facilitators/whosstacey.html#testimonials

    Do they know each other? Yes they do. And then there is this is on Stephens site: “Stacey Barr’s Performance Management Blueprint Workshop

    In my work at Perceptual Edge, I help organizations analyze their performance and present what they find in tables and graphs, which often involves dashboards. People who attend my courses in dashboard design often ask for help in figuring out how to measure the performance of their organizations. Until you know what aspects of performance to measure and how to measure them, you can’t even begin to develop a dashboard. I don’t cover this important aspect of performance management in my work, but others do, including Stacey Barr, the Performance Measurement Specialist.”

    URL: http://www.perceptualedge.com/blog/?p=626

    Do I have a point? Not really. But Stacey and you do, and they are good ones. I enjoyed reading them. I hope others do too.

    As far as all my quoting from Stacey’s and Stephen’s web sites, I just wanted to show that they know and admire each other. We all should be so lucky.

    @dmgerbino

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for your post.

      You’re correct, I didn’t take the time to research Stacey Barr before posting my comments about her article on DashboardInsight.com. Honestly, I figured that there would be so many replies to her post that my voice might be lost in the crowd if I took too long. I guess that’s not the case. Also, in my critique of her post, I’m not all that sure that her background matters all that much.

      After reading Stephen Few’s writeup about Stacey’s workshop, I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that she is a great performance measurement specialist. Does that make her a dashboard design expert? I don’t think so.

      I will and have said, Stacey has a lot of rules for dashboard design right. The ones that she has wrong, though, are pretty important ones. When I see someone make a post giving people bad advice regarding dashboard design (use color, use Pareto charts, don’t compare A to B), I’m going to raise my voice a little and correct what I see as wrong. Let’s face it, there are many more bad dashboards in the world than good ones. Websites like dashboardinsight.com should be putting up the best information possible to help advance the art and science of dashboarding.

      Lastly, before making this post, I did check out your website, http://www.dmgerbino.com/. I like your posts, particularly the one about the NYTimes’ Op-ed piece using pie charts.

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion David. I hope we can stay in touch.

      John C. Munoz

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