This blog post is a collaboration between Elizabeth Grim and Laura Sundstrom (posted on both of our sites), based on our presentation at the 2016 American Evaluation Association conference in Atlanta, GA. The presentation, entitled “Low Cost, High Impact: How to Create Dashboards on a Budget,” focused on basic dashboard design principles and provided detailed examples of how to create meaningful dashboards using Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint. This is the first part of a pair of blog posts about the presentation. This first part focuses on basic dashboard design principles.  Watch for the second post providing examples of how to use these principles in action using Excel and PowerPoint.

Dashboards are a great tool for organizations to use to analyze and monitor their objectives and outcomes. While they can seem overwhelming and scary at first, dashboards don’t have to be something that organizations have to dedicate a lot of time and money towards. Here we demystify dashboards and provide examples of how to creating meaningful dashboards using tools organizations already have – Microsoft Office and PowerPoint.

What is a Dashboard?

Stephen Few (2006) defined a dashboard as:

“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.”

An effective dashboard uses visual displays to clearly and concisely deliver key information to an intended audience. Displaying information on a single page or screen allows users to make comparisons, evaluate, and draw conclusions that are not possible when data is split across multiple pages or screens.   

Dashboards can have different purposes: monitor operations, track progress on outputs and outcomes, strategic planning, and for analytics. Regardless of the specific purpose, a dashboard has to meet these three aims (Smith, 2013).

  1. Increase understanding
  2. Communicate effectively
  3. Inform decision making

Dashboard Design Principles

When we think about creating a dashboard, we think about it as a three step process: Discuss, Develop, Refine.


1. Discuss

Dashboards cannot be created in a vacuum. You need to understand what the dashboard is going to be used for, who needs the information, and what information is most important. The only way to understand this is by talking to your key stakeholders.  

Know your audience: Who is the intended audience of the dashboard? Who needs this information? What type of information do they need?purpose-drive-dashboard

Know your purpose: You have to understand what the audience is going to be using the
dashboard for and how it will be used in order to make a meaningful and usable dashboard.

Identify appropriate metrics: After you know the audience and purpose, you can identify the most appropriate metrics that will meet these needs. You also have to take it one step further and prioritize the metrics. Because you have to fit all of this information onto a single page or screen, you have to be able to have the difficult conversations about prioritization and recognize that you don’t have to say “yes” to every data request.

Just as we cannot be all things to all people, our dashboards cannot serve every purpose and meet the needs of every audience. Your dashboard is only as good as the world you put into it in the beginning.

2. Develop

Next it’s time to put “pen to paper” (or whatever medium you choose), to start to develop your dashboard.  

Identify a platform: There any many different platforms available for dashboard development, with varying price tags and learning curves. Most of our experience is in creating dashboards using Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint. There are many other options out there, such as Google Sheets and Slides, Tableau, and Tableau Public.

Sketch it out:  As you are sketching out the dashboard, here are some important things to remember:

  • einstein-quotesKeep it simple: People have a hard time retaining more than 3-5 pieces of information at a time. Overcomplicating your dashboard with too many metrics will make it hard for users to understand the main message(s). Your dashboard should also be structured in a way that helps users understand the big picture, using flow, relationships, or grouping. 
  • Identify the appropriate chart type for the data: Flashy doesn’t mean better; pretty doesn’t mean effective. You do not have to use every type of chart available to make your dashboard “interesting.” It is more important that your dashboard is meaningful and effective, ensuring that the right chart type is utilized for each metric. If that means that the same chart type is used with every metric, that’s fine!  
  • Eliminate the clutter: It is hard to see the message through the clutter. Only the things that are necessary to the story of the dashboard should be included. Remove “chart junk” – anything on the default chart settings that are decorative or not necessary (like grid lines, tick marks, 3D displays). Use color intentionally to convey meaning – rainbow graphs are out, impactful graphs are in!
  • Consider accessibility concerns: It’s important to ensure that users can easily access the information in your dashboard. Accessibility concerns you will face include:
    • Color blindness: The main forms of color blindness in the U.S. are red and green, and blue and yellow. Try to avoid these color combinations. Check out a tool like Color Oracle to see if your visualizations are readable by users experiencing color blindness.
    • Color Contrast: Some organizations might print your dashboard in black and white, or photocopy your dashboard multiple times. Try viewing your dashboard in black and white and/or print your dashboard in black and white to see if the key messages are able to be interpreted when color is removed.
    • Legibility: Make sure that it is easy for users to read the dashboard. Use appropriate font styles and sizes.

Make a dashboard: Now that you have sketched out the dashboard, taking all of these considerations into account, you are ready to create the prototype. This process may take multiple iterations – your initial prototype will not be your final dashboard.

Document how the metrics were developed and how the visuals were made, what data cleaning occurred, and so on. When you update the dashboard, you won’t have to completely re-do all of your work.

3. Refine

Remember how you aren’t making this dashboard in a vacuum? You need to talk with people at this phase of the dashboard creation too.  dashboard-design-process

Get feedback: Get feedback from potential users on how they interact with the dashboard. Who needs to provide feedback and approve the dashboard? Does the dashboard provide enough context for users? Is it easy for users to understand what actions need to be taken based on what the dashboard is showing? 

Refine: Once you get feedback, the next step is to take their feedback into consideration and refine the dashboard. Remember to prioritize and understand that your dashboard can’t be every thing to every person.

Update regularly: Every dashboard should have an update protocol outlining how often the dashboard will be updated and who is responsible for updating it. How often you update the dashboard will depend on the audience, purpose, and metrics.  

These three design steps (Discuss, Develop, Refine) will help you with any dashboard that you are creating, no matter how complicated or platform used.  

We want to hear your input on how you develop your dashboards. What tricks do you use? What are the important things to include? What do you not need to keep in your dashboard?

And watch out for the second post in this pair about how to apply these principles to making dashboards in Excel and PowerPoint!

More Resources

You can find resources for selecting an appropriate chart type here: