The most important lesson I’ve learned about dashboard design? Slow down and ask the right questions early in the project.
Imagine if you called Domino’s and told them you wanted to order a pizza … and then they hung up before you had a chance to tell them what you wanted on it.
They’ll be able to build a pizza for you. But they probably won’t bake the one that you actually wanted.
This is a ridiculous example, but it’s not that different from what happens when a lot of us design marketing dashboards.
As marketing analysts, we want to jump right into building the report because that’s what brings us the most joy. We don’t spend nearly enough time asking our users questions about their requirements for the dashboard.
As a result, we don’t know exactly what our users need. Then we get stuck in this cycle where we’re constantly going back and forth over revisions. And because we didn’t define the parameters clearly up front, the project’s scope starts to creep, too. In summary, everything hurts and is on fire.
Fortunately, this is an easy problem to fix: Make gathering requirements the very first thing you do as part of your dashboard design process.
You can even streamline things by creating a standard list of questions to ask, like this document our team created.
If you gather requirements first, every other part of your dashboard build becomes easier. You’ll avoid an endless series of revisions. And you’ll be able to produce a visualization that your audience will love to use.
Before You Design Your Dashboard, Ask These Three Questions
When you gather requirements, there are three big questions you should answer:
- Who is going to be using the dashboard?
- What specific business questions do they need to answer?
- What data sources, dimensions and metrics are required to answer those questions?
Let’s use a basic example to run through each of those questions.
We’ve just been hired to build a reporting dashboard for the social media team at a pizza chain that wants to know how their investment in social media is performing at the top of the funnel. They really want a Wendy’s-style following.
Who will use this marketing dashboard?
So answering Question 1 is easy. The end user here is the company’s social media team.
The trick is remembering who your audience is. As the project moves forward, it’s really easy to keep adding extra information that other people (like the company’s CMO or product team) would be interested in.
If you do that, though, your dashboard’s design is going to get really bloated, becoming so crammed full of data that it will be hard to use. It would be better to create dedicated reports for the CMO and product team.
Be strong — don’t give in to dashboard bloat!
What kinds of questions do they need to answer?
After talking with the social team, you learn that they want to know if their social audience is getting bigger and if the audience is interacting with the company’s social posts. And they want to know which specific social platforms do the best job reaching the audience.
What data will help you answer those questions?
Try thinking in terms of metrics, dimensions and data sources.
To show how the audience size is changing over time, your dashboard will need to display the number of followers and the number of engagements — those are your two key metrics.
As an analyst, you should also make recommendations for tracking other metrics that give context to the reporting.
For example, it could be useful to include the number of impressions, which would reveal if people are actually seeing the company’s posts, and number of posts, which can help show if the company is posting too much or not enough. This would tell you if spikes in impressions and engagements are due to a higher volume of posts or higher quality of posts.
You’ll want to include at least two dimensions for each metric: date (so you can see if the totals are increasing over time) and social source (so you can tell how much each social platform is contributing to the total).
We’re keeping things simple for this example, but in the real world, you’ll probably track time of day and day of week as dimensions, too. That way, you can investigate if certain times are better for reaching your audience.
Your data sources for each of these questions are the APIs for each of the social team’s platforms — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.
(Again, in the real world, it might be more complicated, especially if you’re using data sources with weird, tricky APIs or no APIs at all. If that’s you, Alight can help you connect to all your data, from any source, and put it in analysis-ready form.)
Once you’ve outlined your answers to all these questions, send them back to your client for approval. Get everyone on the same page.
Then, and only then, are you ready to design and build your dashboard.
Dashboard Design Doesn’t Have to Be So Hard
Now, this whole process of gathering requirements might seem simple. But if you don’t use a process like this, it’s amazing how much harder it becomes to create a dashboard.
Honestly, there have been projects where I think I understand everything that’s required, but writing it all down forces me to ensure I’ve checked all the boxes and not missed anything.
Is this an absolutely perfect, bulletproof method for preventing revisions? LOL, nope! At some point, you will have a stakeholder come back and say, actually, we need to include X, Y and Z in this dashboard you’ve spent the last month developing.
You can and should review the requirement doc with them, but even then, you’ll probably end up making some changes.
But even with those detours, you’re going to save so much time in the long run by gathering detailed requirements early in your project. It really does work wonders.
Alight Makes Marketing Dashboards Even Faster to Create
Of course, you don’t actually have to design your own dashboards. Alight’s end-to-end analytics solutions feature a full suite of ready-to-use dashboards for lead gen, eCommerce, paid media, social, search and so much more. Learn more!