There’s a famous Abraham Lincoln quote where he says, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
While you may not be able to relate to chopping down trees, everyone can understand the underlying theme: preparation is the key to success. Students spend hours studying for one exam, athletes practice every day leading up to their next game, and even something as simple as cooking dinner requires going to the store, slicing up ingredients, and preheating the oven.
As common as preparation is in everyday life, it is still human nature to want to jump right into a project without laying the necessary groundwork to ensure success. Skipping those preparation steps can prove disastrous and end up wasting more time in the long run. This also applies to building dashboards.
We call the dashboard planning process storyboarding, a term we borrowed from the animation industry. If you don’t properly design storyboards for the dashboards you hope to create, you will inevitably run into roadblocks and may not discover that the way you are building the dashboard will not work until you are nearly finished. It can be an incredibly frustrating process to have to restart, especially when it can easily be avoided by taking time to prepare.
Preparing Yourself for Dashboard Success
In this guide, I will outline the process of creating a data visualization storyboard, starting with a brief introduction to the three W’s. Throughout the storyboard design process, don’t forget to ask yourself:
- What am I measuring?
- Who is it for?
- When and how are we looking at it?
What Am I Measuring With My Dashboard?
Most of our clients come into the training process excited about the idea of creating dashboards. They can’t wait to get started, but there is a pretty major roadblock in their way. They don’t know where to begin or what to do with their data. When I ask, “What do you want to build?” I am met with blank stares.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell them what to do. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and that’s why we offer custom dashboards. What our clients decide to include and measure with their dashboard all depends on what they want to do and what the purpose behind the dashboard is. To get started, consider:
- Making a list of ideas: This is the most important thing – you can’t figure out the right data to visualize until you have a story.
- Looking for themes: Are there any interesting relationships with your data that you want to keep an eye on?
- Starting with the reports you have: What would that report you run every day, week, or month look like in a dashboard? This is a great place to start, and it will be easy to see the immediate payoff of dashboards when you realize how much time you are saving. A dashboard should not take 10 minutes to look at. You should be able to see at a glance what is important and see the numbers change in real time if you are using live data.
When it comes to working with your own data and beginning the storyboard design process, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to get everything perfect the first time around. You are just starting to dip your toes in the water and get used to the idea of diving deep into a dashboard project. You are simply getting a basic idea of how iDashboards will display and work with your data so you can continue thinking of new ideas before committing to the build process. Now that doesn’t sound too scary, does it?
Who is This Dashboard For?
When I ask clients why they want to create dashboards, I typically hear something along the lines of: “I want to make this data more visible” or “We want to make this information easier to access.” These questions lead into uncovering an audience for the dashboard. Who is the person that will be accessing and viewing this dashboard?
You will want to actually talk to the people who are going to be looking at the dashboard before you start storyboarding. Maybe there is something in your current reports that nobody cares about, or maybe there’s something they all agree is missing. Set up a meeting to focus group your audience so you can get a better idea of what they expect. That way, you can build a dashboard that they actually want to use. You want everyone on the same page, from the person responsible for the data to the dashboard viewers.
When & How Are We Looking at It?
For each metric, you need to determine a group. You can’t just look at “number of sales.” You need to be more specific while creating a data visualization storyboard and think of the best way to group those sales. For example, you could look at “number of sales by region” or “number of sales by representative.” Comparing one location to another will give you a completely different perspective than taking a deep dive into the sales numbers of one particular location.
In addition to determining a group, you also need to indicate a timeframe. Temporal context influences the meaning of your data and can change the way you and your dashboard audience views certain metrics. Understanding the patterns associated with different times of the year can help you figure out how to make the right comparisons.
You won’t want to compare the months when the market tends to peak to when it tends to fall. Instead, you may want to compare metrics like sales and revenue on a yearly basis. On the other hand, if your CEO needs to put out quarterly reports, you may want to design your dashboard that way. It’s all about choosing a timeframe that works for you and your data. It’s something that needs to be considered in the storyboarding phase, so you can display your data in the best, most accurate light.
The Dashboard Storyboarding Process
The storyboarding process is just 4 simple steps, but it’s important that you follow each one to design the ideal dashboard to accomplish your goals. Be sure to keep your answers to the 3 W’s (What, Who, and When) in mind throughout this process!
- Choose 4-6 metrics: This is the sweet spot. Anything more than 4-6 gets unnecessarily overwhelming. To help narrow it down and make sure you are choosing metrics that will give you actionable insight that drives behavior, question every single metric before you decide if you should include it. Why is it important? What question is it answering or asking? Keep in mind that you don’t need to cram everything into one dashboard; you can have as many as you need. Separate your metrics out by theme. Think about it: does it really make sense to have one dashboard that tells you sales, new hires, and the number of open spaces in the parking lot? This retail dashboard is a great example of “less is more,” as it focuses solely on sales metrics:
- Draw 4-6 frames on a whiteboard: The number of frames depends on your vision and how many metrics you want to include in your dashboard. These frames serve as a visual reference that is easy to adjust as your plans progress. You may be tempted to just think about what your dashboard will look like, but drawing out these frames is a good way to start thinking about data visually.
- Sketch a chart or graph in each frame: This will help you see which types of charts and graphs best fit the data. If something doesn’t seem quite right, don’t be afraid to erase and try something else. With over 250 chart types, you are bound to find something that works for you. Drawing helps you think through what you want to see, so even if you think you know exactly what you want, we still recommend that you sketch it out.
- Add color: The final step of storyboarding is breaking out some new dry-erase markers and adding the appropriate colors to the charts. This is an important part of the data storyboarding process, because color adds useful context to a dashboard. Think about the connotations certain colors have. For example, everyone in an organization will be able to relate the color green to “good” or “go” and the color red to “bad” or “stop.” If you are interested in incorporating your brand colors into the dashboard, we recommend consulting with your graphic design team to ensure they are being used appropriately, consistently, and according to your organization’s brand standards. Be consistent with your colors: one metric should be the same color everywhere on your dashboard, regardless of how many charts and graphs you are using it in.