A Quick Guide for Building KPI Dashboards: Part 2

Last Updated: Tuesday, March 12, 2013 by Johnathan Briggs

In Part 1 of this guide, I showed you the initial three steps of how you could take all of the stress and heartache out of creating a KPI dashboard:

1. Deciding on the right KPIs for your company

2. Making sure your Data Tables are configured in the correct way for you dashboard software.

3. Constructing the ‘skeleton’ of your dashboard.

The second part of this quick guide to dashboard construction will focus on the meat of dashboard creation: filling it with meaningful information that will make your data much easier to understand and spot trends from.


Like the previous part, this guide will divide the process of filling your dashboard with meaningful information into three more easy steps, so that you can get on with creating your own brilliant KPI dashboards in no time!

4. Choose the Best Charts for your KPIs

In the last step, we chose a rudimentary layout for our dashboard. In this step, we’re going to fill that dashboard with your KPIs. While this is probably the most important part of dashboard creation, choosing the best charts for your dashboard is not as complex as t may seem. While choosing KPI charts can be broken down into many steps, here are the main three which are all you need to know.

i. Your charts should reflect a clear message to users.

Thinking back to choosing the right KPIs, your KPIs should always show important information about your company which you can take action on. But, even if you know the message your KPIs are showing, you still have to communicate that message to other users of your dashboard. When choosing your KPI charts, they have to show this message in the clearest way possible.

The message which your KPIs are communicating will often be quite a simple, yet important one. Different KPIs have different functions, and each has charts which are best used to show them. In my experience, Charts for KPIs can be divided into four broad categories.

1. Quantitative KPIs

Quantitative KPIs focus on communicating the value of your KPIs to users. Sales KPIs often have a quantitative element to them, as managers often need to know the exact number associated with the KPI in order to make informed business decisions.

To communicate quantitative KPIs most effectively, an example of an effective chart to use is the Column chart. This chart type allows users to:

  • See Metric values easily
  • Understand their trend information

This makes them a powerful chart choice.


You may also consider using stacked column charts to show how quantitative KPIs are broken down.


2. Directional KPIs

Directional KPIs focus on showing the variation in the individual measurements of data, and whether there is a trend or pattern to these measurements. Measuring directional KPIs is often the quickest way of telling if an area of your business is doing well, or if it needs improvement.

Because directional KPis focus on trend information, many of your charts will show directional information to some extent. For this, I recommend Area Charts as a starting point for showing trends.


Unlike line charts (which are pretty much the same chart without the filled colour below the trend line), area charts make it very easy for users to see the line of progess, as there is a clear contrast between the filled chart and the unused space in the chart grid.

3. Actionable KPIs

These KPIs are often associated with Target Values, or values which you don’t want them to fall under (e.g. sales per month) or go over (e.g. budget), as well as actions associated with any change in their values.

For example, say you’re measuring the number of sales each month, and your department has a target amount of sales that they want to make each month. To show this, you can use a column chart with a target line chart. Target Lines allow you to take quick action because:

  • They clearly divide the chart into ‘above’ and ‘below’ a certain point
  • This divide lets users easily assign actions to above, below or on the target level.

Using a target line on a column chart, your data would look something like this:


You can also represent this with a gauge, which assigns a colour depending on if you met your target or not.


Depending on the status of the gauge (green or red), you might choose to take action to capitalise or improve on your current statistic.

4. Categorical KPIs

Unlike the other types of KPIs which are based in time, categorical KPIs (or distribution KPIs) are based on information that is segmented into many different categories. These can be useful when compared, as changes in distribution could indicate market shifts, for instance. While I find that time-based charts are more powerful decision-making tools, there will be times that showing categorical KPI data is needed.

Categorical KPIs can be shown in many ways, with the most common being the Pie Chart. The following chart shows the total number of products sold by a company, broken down into the different product types.


5. Consider other Chart Types and Chart Items

I’ve just listed the four main KPI types, along with some examples for charting them correctly. However, there are many more types to choose from, which you can find through experimentation. Also, dashboard software doesn’t just contain charts for showing your KPIs.

Additional dashboard items can also add clarity, as well as variation to your displayed KPIs. Here are three which can provide additional information and unique insights into your KPis.

Yearly Comparison Charts

Unlike regular charts, these charts are optimised for comparing data taken from the same timeframe in different years. This can be used just to compare data from similar timeframes, or to observe trends for different years side by side.



Scorecards are useful for showing information on multiple KPIs at a glance. It’s also a great way of directly comparing KPIs that aren’t contained in the same data table.


However, you must be careful when selecting the data to put into a scorecard, as inserting unrelated KPIs can create the wrong message for your audience.

Table Summaries

While charts and other ways of visualising data are great to communicate your message, some people might prefer to see the numbers instead. Therefore, including a summary of the raw data in your table might allow you to get your point across for people with different viewing preferences.


Know your message, and finding the right chart becomes easy!

While choosing KPI charts for your dashboard can be broken down into many stages of decision making, I think that there is only one real thing that you have to decide on: the message which you want to communicate to others. If you can understand the nature of your KPIs and the important information about your company which they contain, choosing the right chart to show that information will be easy.

In the final part of this guide, you will learn how to fine-tune your KPI dashboard, and make it an essential decision-making tool. Until then, be sure to try out the different chart types in this guide for yourself, and you’ll see how easy it is to get the insights you need from your data!You can get more tips in our Guide to dashboard management.