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How a Dashboard Changes the Conversation

How a Dashboard Changes the Conversation

How a dashboard changes the conversation_Blog post image-01

Presenting data effectively changes the kinds of conversations that can happen inside organizations. Better presentations shape an improved culture of decision-making. Let me tell you about a recent example of this.

Late 2012 I got a call from an evaluation officer who was working at the Walton Family Foundation. (Yep – *those* Waltons. Whatever your opinion of Walmart, the foundation is doing some good work. While I can’t tell you the details of their data, you’ll just have to trust me that their investments in environmental initiatives are truly impressive.) She said her group was ready for change, ready to learn ways to present better.

We had a thought-provoking workshop together and at the end they were ready to overhaul their reporting. You see, they had been submitting their data to their board of directors like this:



with the expectation that the board would make actionable decisions based on it. Yeah, that wasn’t happening. Rows and rows of numbers are extremely hard to make sense of. It’s very difficult for our brains to compare that many digits and pull out any kind of pattern, let alone gain insight that can lead to strategy. I suggested we swap out all tables for graphs, but Karen at Walton said “Uh, no the board really wants to see all the raw numbers.” Inside my head I said “Suuuuuuure they do” and out of my mouth I said, “No problem, let’s keep them all in there and dashboard this thing.” Here is the redesign:


We really only made 3 small changes.

  1. I added a trendline to show the row of numbers preceding it, so that the overall pattern is clear. That green dot at the end of the trendline? That’s the target they are aiming for in 2019.
  2. The target is listed numerically in the column next door. And in that target cell, you’ll see that some have a red dot. I used conditional formatting to set up a formula which calculates their predicted value in 2019 based on their current data and the red dot shows up when they aren’t going to meet their target as things stand without some serious intervention. Talk about being able to make actionable decisions!
  3. And then the modified bullet graph shows progress to date.

So only 3 changes, really. Plus some light graphic design in terms of colors and such.

Walton actually took another one of my recommendations from our first workshop, which was to hire a graphic designer. Maskar put their final touches on the dashboard so now it looks like this:

FAKE Dashboards 2015-2019 Reformatted FINAL

Karen and her team showed this dashboard to their board, who saw it as a real improvement. In late 2014 we have been dashboarding even more. So, good for me and my business but let’s talk about what happened inside the Walton Family Foundation.

The culture changed. Karen recently told me that the drive toward better design “really impacted everyone at Walton Family Foundation.” She went on to say, “Dipping our toe in the waters of better data visualization with the dashboards has set off a chain reaction. Our entire organization is really poised to improve how we present information to our Board and publicly.  Data visualization helps us tell a story about the foundation’s impact and leads to improved decision-making across the organization.”

And *that’s* the kind of difference that can be made by presenting data effectively.


This cross-post is part of a collaboration on the intersection of Data Visualization and Culture by Gavin McMahon and Stephanie Evergreen. Read Part 1 and Part 3.

Stephanie is a worldwide data presentation consultant and author of Presenting Data Effectively. She blogs at You can follow her on twitter @evergreendata.

Gavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

22 thoughts on “How a Dashboard Changes the Conversation
  1. Natalie says:

    I just had this conversation with our assistant controller. Picture a “dashboard” 15 pages long of the original Walton Foundation Dashboard. NOW, swap the light blue headers for crimson with white bold font. OH and add a couple points to the table lines. We want to make sure every number is secure in it’s box – don’t want them escaping. She was lamenting because an SVP through her out of the conference room and said, “I hate the format.” Sadly, four months later it’s still 15 page document with bold red headers and thick table lines. I like the conditional formatting queues, I think I will add those.

    • Stephanie Evergreen says:

      I feel your pain, Natalie! Maybe add one great piece of dataviz and delete one awful thing each month, slowly, so as not to raise too much suspicion?

      • Natalie says:

        Ha! That’s pretty much what I’m doing. I can’t remove her work as I don’t have that much power but I suspect that as I reveal one new view heads will turn away and we can make progress. 🙂

  2. Angie Ficek says:

    Love it. I’ve never done a trendline with a goal at the end of it. And I can’t help but notice 2 of iStock’s 2015 trends in your post. You’re so trendy, Stephanie!

  3. Liz says:

    Thanks for sharing this Stephanie! Great example of how simple changes can make a huge difference. For those of us who want to improve our dashboards, but without a graphic designer, was the basic improved dashboard built in Excel?

  4. Andy Cotgreave says:

    Great post!
    Do you think it’s time to go even further and ditch not only rows of data but also dashboards? What if you could start each day with a question and then dynamically explore the data and answer the question of the day. The issue I have with dashboards is that they answer the questions they were designed to answer but nothing more. You know you’ve made a good dashboard when it generates curiosity and MORE questions. But unless you can explore the data instantly and iteratively interact with it, then you’re still at a dead end. Sure, you’re further than you were when you had a table of data, but you’re not as far as you could be.

    • Stephanie Evergreen says:

      Good points but often dashboards aren’t used in isolation. They do come with that extra context to allow more details – sometimes through staff reports, sometimes through interactivity, etc. As you know!

      • Christopher Thompson says:

        Although, some dashboards are static in that they only tell stories that someone wanted to be told, there are others that are interactive. For instance if you used pivot charts and slicers in your excel dashboard, you could make it customizable to a certain degree. One crucial aspect about creating an effective dashboard is vetting out with content “experts” (or consumers of the information) just what they would like to see.

        • Stephanie Evergreen says:

          Yes, Christopher. That’s a great way to leverage the dashboard as a conversation changer. I’ve seen it happen so many times.

  5. Rich says:

    Dig it – the progress to date bar is way more compelling than a numerical percentage – not sure why…but it is!

  6. Barbara Mavor says:

    I so prefer your presentation to the ‘designer’s’ one – sharper, clearer. Others must have told you the same – surely?

  7. Peteria Chan says:

    Hi Stephanie,
    Thanks for the informational blog post! The modified dashboard is so much easier to read and understand compared to the original table. I had 2 questions: How did you create the dot for the targets in the trend line column in excel? Also, if we can’t have graphic designers to help us with our dashboards, are there any good resources on graphic design out there you suggest we can use?

    • Stephanie Evergreen says:

      Hi Peteria, The dots in the sparkline are there because I have hidden columns for the years between the most recent and the target. The sparkline is referencing all of them. When you insert the sparkline, make sure you allow it to show hidden data. As for graphic design resources, you might start with something basic and accessible like Presentation Zen or Information Dashboard Design or the Non-Designer’s Design Book and then move your way up into the graphic design tomes, like anything by Millman, Lupton, or Heller.

      • Peteria Chan says:

        Thanks, Stephanie! I followed your steps and was able to figure out how to add the target dot. And thanks for the resources.

  8. Takanori Kusaka says:

    Hi Stephanie!! This was such an useful topic! Thank you so much for introducing your ideas on your blog.
    I have one question. In the improved dashboard, you made the “Progress to date” cell. How did you make is? Could you tell me how to make it in Excel? Or, if there is any your blog which mentioned how to make it, could you share the link of the blog?
    Really looking forward to hearing from you soon.

    • Stephanie Evergreen says:

      Hey Takanori, Lots of possibilities here but one easy one is to make overlapping bar charts in Excel. You just make a regular clustered bar with the performance and the target and then put performance on the secondary axis so it goes in front of the target bar. Try it!

      • Takanori Kusaka says:

        Dear Stephanie,

        Thank you so much for your reply and kind information. Yeah, I could do it! I have some more questions.
        1. How can the bar be displayed in one cell? Cause what you explained to me is one of the charts. But I wanna show the bar in a cell. could you tell me how to move the bar into the cell?
        2. Also, what I am doing is more complicated. Basically, there are three data; 1) baseline (which is the starting point of the projects) 2) target 3) performance. Baseline should be the starting point of the bar and the target should be the ending point of the bar. How can I display all of these data in a bar?
        So, for example, if baseline is 50, target is 100, and performance is 40 which is below the baseline. in your renewed dashboard, especially in the column of “Medium-term Outcomes MT Metric 1”, you indicates tiny flat bar for performance. How did you display it?

        Sorry for many questions. But I really need to know how to do them. I am looking forward to hearing from you and information.

        • Stephanie Evergreen says:

          You’re looking for a pretty complicated reply! Maybe I’ll write this up into a blog post at some point. Thanks for the idea. And good luck. I’m sure if you turn on your Excel hacking hat, you come up with a solution. It’s possible!

          • Takanori Kusaka says:

            Dear Stephanie,

            Thank you so much for that. I do look forward to the time when you post on that topic on the blog soon!

  9. David says:

    Does anyone know of what library or package that can mimic the chart inside table effect in R? Thanks!

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