Manage, Discover or Tell a Story with Data: One Dashboard Does Not Rule Them All

What is a dashboard anyway? A more accurate description would be a digital information display but the term dashboard sounds much more “down to earth.” Still, it does warrant a description so that we’re on the same page. 

I have crafted my definition taking cues from a few visualization experts and have included the what, who, how and why.

My definition:

A dashboard is thoughtfully organized data on an interactive digital display to communicate its users’ objectives using best practices in data visualization.

So what?

So how does this definition translate to dashboard types? And why is this important? Dashboards have moved beyond just being a display for overviews or simple monitoring. They are used for so much more. Being able to identify the type of dashboard your client is describing will help you to better scope your project, manage your client’s expectations (they may not even be aware that there’s more than one type!) and select the right tools for your needs.

I have also looked at different data viz experts’ descriptions of dashboard types – usually there are three types but I’ve seen as many as 13! I’ve narrowed down these 13 types of dashboards into three main ones. 

I’ll be using examples borrowed from Rhythm of Food, which is a series of graphics created by top data visualization experts. They not only make data interesting, but they’re also able to simplify it so that once you get your head around this one visual type it’s easy to understand. Even better, they make their visualizations fun (in my opinion) with animations.

Let’s have a look. The visual used is a type of radial bar chart. It is more on the “complex and deeper” end of the visualization wheel (see my post Goldilocks & the 3 Graphs: The Visualization Wheel That Gets It Just Right), but is certainly appropriate since the data are cyclical, displaying trends year over year. 

The example below is for the seasonality of apricot. The higher the Google searches for apricot, the further the bars extend to the edges of the circle. More searches are in November and December around the holidays as well as in the summer (not surprising!).

seasonality of apricot can be shown by number of searches and holidays
Let’s get into the three main types of dashboards now: Measure to Manage, Drill down to Discover and Tell a Story.

 

Measure to Manage Dashboards

Measure to manage dashboards contain measures that users want to monitor (e.g. KPIs) as well as context that answers “compared to what?” so that action (e.g. alerts) can be taken (or not). They are helpful when a business wants to monitor performance and ensure goals are being achieved. The example below wasn’t created specifically as an M2M dashboard (it would be one of a series of M2M dashboards supporting the business) but the premise to alert the manager to sought-after food items at different times of the year would aid in-store management and planning.

 

Measure to manage dashboards and visuals can help manage certain aspects of a business

Drill-down to Discover Dashboards

These types of dashboards let users explore the data to find trends or specific patterns, or to investigate any alerts appearing on their M2M (measure to manage) dashboards. The exploration may unearth “nuggets of data” which can then be used in a presentation to tell a story. 

These dashboards help you easily search for patterns, look for relationships and try to understand the “why” behind the numbers. Below is a great example of a dashboard inviting you to “dig into the data”. It’s also telling me I need to try the Grasshopper cocktail for St. Patrick’s Day!

Drill down to discover dashboards can help explore data to find trends

Tell-a-Story Dashboards

There has been a trend in the past few years for dashboards to move beyond merely showing KPIs, alerts and trends. Users want someone to summarize the many dashboards they monitor and give them insights via data, visuals and a narrative. Many dashboard tools now offer this ability to create a series of dashboards much like PowerPoint. Or you can simply use PowerPoint to begin with or hire a designer to create an infographic. Tell-a-story dashboards are built to display that nugget of information which you found searching through a drill-down to discover dashboard. 

I put together a couple of visuals below that are the beginning of an interesting story about superfoods. Superfoods started to take off in the early 2000s but this designation is really nothing more than marketing hype. I sorta thought that there was some truth to antioxidants, which is why I religiously eat blueberries in my breakfast, but apparently they only provide “moderate” levels of nutrients compared to other fruits and veggies (sigh). The searches on blueberry below don’t really show a spike since the data are from 2004 and all the hype around blueberries was in late the 1990s/early 2000s but the pomegranate and cauliflower show jumps (see red circle) when they were designated as superfoods, the former in 2005 and the latter in 2015 (cauliflower was touted as the “new kale”). Kale and quinoa searches increased all year round from 2012.

Dashboards and visuals can tell interesting stories

All of the individual radial graphs are animated showing over time how fast the searches grew and whether they are concentrated at certain times of the year.

Take them for a spin at http://rhythm-of-food.net/.

In conclusion…

As you can see, each dashboard type has its own purpose and benefit. The better you understand them, the better you’ll be able to help your client build a dashboard that solves their problem and aligns with their goals. If you’re still in the scoping phase of a project, this post might be useful: Discovering What Matters. Designing a Dashboard in Line With Your Client’s Goals.

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.
Email: mk@dashboardvision.com.

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