5 Awful Dashboard Mistakes to Avoid

Last Updated: Thursday, September 13, 2012 by Johnathan Briggs

I see loads and loads of dashboard designs and frankly there are some that experience says are never going to deliver their business objectives because of common and fundamental reasons.

What is really disappointing is that the numerous dashboard and BI vendors actively promote many of these bad practices on their sales oriented websites because these bad practices often look pretty! So here in this post I hope to share some of the common dashboard mistakes that we see and explain why they are poor practice and what you can do that is more effective.

1. Function Over Form

This is the number one mistake made. Gauges, pie charts and 3D charts make your dashboard become a colourful work of art. You really can make some stunning looking dashboards especially with the range of data visualisation options currently available.

Build a dashboard like this and it will impress your boss for a moment but will do little to help your organisation in the long term.

Let's take a typically poor dashboard that contains some half dozen car speedometer like gauges.

Gauge charts look great, but what do they tell you? - Nothing but the "current situation". This is great if you are in a car because if you are doing 35mph in a 30mph speed limit zone you need to react to that situation and the speed you were doing 5 minutes ago is irrelevant. However, for corporate KPIs, normally the overall trend puts the actual number in some context and a gauge shows none of this.

As an alternative consider the boring, less attractive column chart.

For the same area on our dashboard we can see the current situation and the trend, plus the chart is easier to read and easy to interpret.

3D is unclear

3D as a general rule makes charts hard to read, here is the same chart as above with the values removed. Look how hard it is to read.

Pie Charts

Pie charts are normally better represented as horizontal line charts, but they do have a place on dashboards if not over used, but most people overuse them.

Daft Charts!

We can make a very cool looking chart that is hard to interpret and difficult to read from the same data called a doughnut chart.

In 3 dimensions this is a masterclass in how not to present your corporate numbers, but it looks good!

2. Using KPI Templates

There are lots of websites with lists of KPIs for different business sectors. For public or not for profit businesses, having a fixed set of industry wide KPIs can be a benefit in benchmarking performance against other similar organisations. However for most private organisations KPI lists and Excel dashboard templates can provide inspiration but should not be considered a quick fix solution.

The most important thing about a performance dashboard is that it should contain the "Key" performance indicators and not every single metric. So where do you get the "Key" performance values from? Well the answer is to look at your organisation and to see what metrics are early warnings of good or bad performance. For example let's say that we offer support services. If we take too long to resolve a case then our customers become unhappy. So we could consider measuring, as a KPI, the daily difference between cases 'in' and cases 'resolved', thus seeing quickly if a potential build up was occurring before our customers complain.

The point here is that every business is different and whilst there are many 1000's of business metric we can measure you must consider which data is' Key' to spotting good and bad performance and not clutter up this important value with other less relevant metrics commonly found in KPI templates.

3. Not knowing the message

Ok, so you build a dashboard with several KPIs visually displayed clearly on in it but have you given some thought as to what the message is? Many people forget to consider the message behind the chart and as a result create dashboard and chart designs that are unhelpful when considering the company's performance.

For example.

For some data, you really want to know the numerical values, so it is important that you use a chart style that makes it easy to read off these numbers.

For other KPIs the individual values are less important and it's the overall trend up or down that you want to highlight.

In some cases you may just want to see a change in share from one option to another, eg customer satisfaction levels.

Choosing the wrong presentation of this data means that decisions don't get made as quickly and as a result this can have a negative effect on the business.

Know the message you are trying to communicate and build dashboard items that make this clear.

4. Charts with too much information

Charts with too much information on them make dashboards complex and hard to read and therefore performance management decisions hard to reach.

Typical mistakes here are:

  • Too many KPIs on one chart with lines everywhere
  • Too much detail on a chart
  • Too big a time span

Whilst it's tempting to put lots of KPIS on the same chart it makes it hard to read and interpret. The solution is to make several charts with just two or three KPIs on the same chart. This way you can make the comparisons but on separate charts which are clearer. Sometimes there is still scope for a chart with lots of KPIs on it as long as the individual comparisons are duplicated onto other charts for clearer interpretation.

Longer time periods of data are often poorly presented. Most often, in the short term we want to know the low level detail, but longer term historical figures normally require less detail. Say you collect daily sales figures, but want to show the 2 year trend. Plotting 365x2 days on a chart will be cluttered and messy. But plotting that information by month and not day will reduce the points to 24 and smooth the resulting chart, making the trend more obvious. The down side to this is that you lose detail, and for the short term this is often critical. So the simple solution is to do two charts, one over a longer period with less detail and another over a short period with more detail. This makes the trend easier to spot and the actual KPI values of the recent times clear.

I could go on with lots of the over designed charts that put function over form. The bottom line is simple. Can it be read and interpreted at a glance? Sometimes boring and old fashioned is best. Take a look at our Best Practice guide for more tips on displaying data in your KPI dashboards.

5. Electronic KPI Dashboards don't replace paper
I love dashboards, I talk about them all the time, but much as it pains me dashboards are not the total solution to KPI reporting. Dashboards are great to check and review with high visibility, however you can't write notes with your pen on a dashboard, or easily annotate it in a meeting with colleagues. So don't rely totally on dashboards, make sure you have some KPI reports that you can print and use in different ways that are designed for a paper presentation and not simply print outs of a dashboard.

Want More info?

For the definitive guide to presenting data download this 12 Part Dashboard Best Practice Guide