Using Mental Models for Successful Dashboard Design

You’ve got your marching orders and have a dashboard to build. Across from you is your client. How do you structure the discussion so that you can glean from them what you need to build a tool that’s useful for them? 

In my experience, these discovery sessions are often more challenging than building the actual dashboard! 

There are many reasons for this. Sometimes the customer comes to the meeting wanting to nail down how they want the dashboard to “look”. Or they simply don’t know how to articulate the process they need to monitor, or the questions that they need to answer. 

If you are not experienced in guiding the discussion towards getting this information, then you risk becoming an order-taker and ultimately the success of the project. 

So clearly it is critical to understand the client’s “mental model” – the representation of how people use data to support their jobs. This sounds daunting but with a sound set of ground rules, a little practice and targeted questions, you can elicit what you need to get started. More questions will arise later which, as with any creative process, is perfectly natural. 

But let’s go back to our client meeting. How to kick-start the process of transferring their ideas to you? Here are a few ways to try depending on the type of client: 


1. Have them draw it. 
draw out your mental model
2. Get them to use legos or other physical objects and then describe what they’ve built.
create a mental model by using lego or blocks
3. Have them describe it on post-it notes and create the process on a whiteboard. The results can be easily recorded.  
Use post-it notes to help outline the process
In my next post, I’ll list out specific questions that need to be answered to ensure you are getting enough information regarding data, design and functional requirements.

Have you struggled to communicate clearly with a client? Do you have your own methods for creating mental model or processes? Let me know.

Marya Kaska

Marya Kaska is the co-founder of Dashboard Vision. The company will soon release its new data-to-insights reporting platform helping users take full advantage of powerful business intelligence and PowerPoint solutions.

Follow her on LinkedIn.

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