Illustration by Icons 8

What is a dashboard?

A dashboard is a view of carefully selected information. In cars, it is a visualization of our speed, the oil and fuel level, and other important information to steer the vehicle. Of course, in newer cars, we might have a lot more information on the dashboard.

Why do we use dashboards? There are several reasons, which we can boil down to three points:

  1. We want to see the big picture.
  2. We want to focus on specific metrics or pieces of information that are important to our business.
  3. We want to be able to deep dive into the information so that we can see what action needs to be taken.

A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives, consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance. — Stephen Few

What does a B2B dashboard show?

This depends on a lot of different factors. But most importantly, a dashboard shows what is important to your business or department. Because what is important to me might not be important to you.

Know your audience

To communicate in the best way possible, one needs to know their audience. Turning it down a notch might seems like losing what you are trying to communicate. However, by thinking in simple terms, nothing will be lost as long as you are still true to the complexity of the problem.

“Simplicity is not the opposite of complexity: complexity is a fact of the world, whereas simplicity is in the mind.“ —Stephen Few, Simplicity vs. Complexity: Designing Goals

Knowing to whom you are speaking is knowing your audience. Of course, we are talking about communicating data, and therefore who will read this data you’re presenting. But when communicating data, there are many factors to take into account. Where the good consultant would say, “Problem, consequence, solution,” we can take it down a notch. I think most of this can be answered by asking:

  • Who is the reader
  • What are we communicating?
  • How are we communicating this?


Illustration by Icons 8

Who will read and decipher what you are writing or putting into a perfectly designed graph? What kind of person has stumbled upon your wonder of a graph, which you think should be up for nomination for a design award? Is it someone who is used to reading these kinds of visualizations? Or an elderly person who found your graph through their grandchild? Does the person know about your data?Here it is also important to take the group’s level of maturity as well as literacy into account because it might have an impact on how people are using the tools we are given them. Who we are communicating with is an essential question. Since we want our message to get through, but cannot make a clear communication for everyone, we need to make a cut and select a group.

The representation and presentation of data to facilitate understanding. — Andy Kirk

Let’s say our audience is only C-Level, then we need to know something about how they work, how much time they have on their hands, and what they would like or need to see. The way we communicate with an expert in the field is very different from the way we communicate with someone with little knowledge on the subject. If we are the ones with the data, and we want people to see, decipher, and read our work, we need to communicate strategically and effectively.

What and how

In a B2B context, how we communicate core business data using this dashboard can be structured. To illustrate this we can use Stephen Few’s different dashboard types as found in his book: Information Dashboard Design.

  • Strategic
  • Operational
  • Analytical

Stephen Few’s division of the dashboards is not made to suit a specific kind of business but is rather a way of structuring the communication. Knowing what type of data and information you want to communicate leaves you with what kind of dashboard you should use. That said, when you know the rules you can break them, and truth be told I do some mixing of the strategic and the operational in my line of work.

The dashboard types are divided into three different categories, where details and level of information grow as we progress downwards. The same actually can be used when designing for different target groups.

How to structure information and what type of dashboard to use when communicating with your target group.

The figure above shows three different pyramids: The company hierarchy or how most companies are built—upper management on top and roles become more specialized as we progress down the ranks. The information hierarchy shows a way of structuring the informational approach to each level. The dashboard design shows how we can design for them.The further up we go, the shorter the selection of data, visualization, and information, however, not less important. The further down we go, the more details, and fewer conclusions; in other words, you have the exploratory analysis in the bottom of the triangle, and the explanatory on the top. We can use this when we communicate with different stakeholders. If we applied the same approach to the hierarchical structure of a business, we’d have: Information at the top are big numbers and clear communication of how the business or department overall performs, and the level of detail in the business intelligence grows as we progress downwards.

The Three Types of Dashboards

The Strategic Dashboard

An example of a strategic dashboard. Click to see a live view of the report

The strategic dashboard provides us with primary key performance indicators (KPIs). This dashboard should only give “The Big Numbers,” and should also be easy to read and comprehend, and fast to decipher.

Always show numbers against a target creates a context to the value

This type of dashboard does not go into detail and has the sole purpose of communicating important information fast.It aims to show the current state of the entire company and could easily include data on how the company performs across several divisions or departments. One could say that this would show the CMO where to look for further information.

What visualizations to use in the strategic dashboard?

Another way of showing the overview is to show trends using line graphs or sparklines. The key using simple graphs is to not use too many details.

Key Features of the Strategic Dashboard

  • We want to see performance over time.
  • It shows KPI performance with references to benchmarks. The data is often compared to performance at a different time (e.g. last year).
  • Often multiple sources are used to create the complete picture.

The Operational Dashboard

An example of an operational dashboard. Click to see a live version of the report

The operational dashboard oversees, you guessed it, operations. In the above example, this oversees web traffic. It aims to show the current state of a department, product, or even a specific metric that the business is using as a KPI. This could be Sessions if you are looking at web analytics. These dashboards usually offer a little more detail in the data, and digging deeper into the data, or drill-down, can also be found. To see an operational dashboard, just picture how a large factory machine would oversee their production.

The operational dashboard above shows some of the same metrics as shown in the strategic dashboard with a deeper dive into the data. Where the C-Level would like to see how it goes with the big numbers, the managers might want to see what goes with the numbers.

Key Features of the Operational Dashboard

  • Show the supporting information for the company.
  • Make use of more detailed graphs. Users have first-hand knowledge of the data.
  • Show a cause of why the big numbers look the way they do.

The Analytical Dashboard

An example of an analytical dashboard. There is a lot of information, however, not many conclusions. I made this to create an exploratory dashboard, where the answers can be found by deep diving. Click here for a live version of the report

The analytical dashboard aims to allow the user to make their explorative data analysis. This often means very granulated data, and it is where the specialist is working. This dashboard could be complete access to a DWH (Data Warehouse), where comparing different metrics and dimensions can uncover important information for the business.

If you are using your data to identify certain trends that could have an impact on future decisions, you might be making an analytic dashboard.

An interesting feature of analytical dashboards is that it is not designed to explain data per se, but rather to nudge the users to use the existing data to find new insights; where the other two types of dashboards are more explanatory, the analytical dashboard is exploratory.

Key Features of the Analytical Dashboard

  • Make it possible to compare and contrast multiple variables
  • Help users filter data, compare performance over time, and find a correlation between actions.
  • Slicing and dicing the data in a structured way allow the user to determine what efforts have worked.
  • An open dashboard where the users are given a data playground.

Final Thoughts

Keep information concise

We should aim to use graphs that show a clear relationship between what has been doneand what we aim for. This is often referred to as data enrichment. Of course, this is not an obligatory drill, however, in my opinion, most dashboards fall short on one thing: They only show vanity KPIs.

Vanity metrics vs Actionable metrics

Vanity metrics are metrics that make you look good to others but do not help you understand your own performance in a way that informs future strategies.

We are designing data cockpits that show a complete overview of our company activities. Hence, we do not want unnecessary information, but rather insights we can quickly turn into actions. An easy way to spot a vanity metric, is to ask “Can this metric lead to a course of action or inform a decision?” If you can answer is “No” or you cannot tell, then there is a good chance you are dealing with a vanity metric and you probably need to re-evaluate it.

Designing Dashboards

All in all, there is a lot of good information about designing dashboards, however, in the end, it comes down to two things: How we represent the data and make it into information, and how we structure these representations to create natural ease for the reader.

However, there is no “one size fits all.” Depending on your business, you might take inspiration in others’ work because they are reporting on the same KPIs as you. It is important to remember that we communicate with different people, and what one person might find amazing, might seem too academic for others. When designing dashboards remember:

  1. See the big picture
  2. Focus on the specific items of information that need attention.
  3. Quickly drill into additional information that is needed to take action.
Stephen Few: Information Dashboard Design (Book cover)

Bonus Information: Stephen Few’s 13 Pitfalls in Designing Dashboards

  1. Exceeding the boundaries of a single screen
  2. Supplying inadequate context for the data
  3. Displaying excessive detail or precision
  4. Expressing measures indirectly
  5. Choosing inappropriate media of display
  6. Introducing meaningless variety
  7. Using poorly designed display media
  8. Encoding quantitative data inaccurately
  9. Arranging the data poorly
  10. Ineffectively highlighting what’s important
  11. Cluttering the screen with useless decoration
  12. Misusing or overusing color
  13. Designing an unappealing visual display

Thanks to Allen Hillery and Noëlle Rakotondravony. 

Digital Marketing Consultant from Copenhagen. Geek, speaker, and writer on subjects as DataViz & PowerBI, self-improvement, and meditation.