In Information Dashboard Design, Stephen Few grouped dashboards into one of three categories. This is helpful because, as Few says, each dashboard category would have a different visual design. And – I’ll add – very different purposes and audiences.

Most dashboards fall flat because the designers haven’t sorted out the purpose and audience. We try to please too many audience needs in the same screenshot and then no one is happy and the dashboard dies a slow, expensive death.

So by understanding the various categories for dashboards, we can do better research before we even open up our software and we’ll build a more useful tool.

That said, I’m not 100% sure Stephen Few’s three dashboard categories are the right way to group dashboards. His list doesn’t cover everything. Let me explain Few’s three dashboards and my fourth.

Strategic Dashboards

Strategic dashboards are meant for executives, who want that 30,000 view of their key performance indicators, digestible at a glance as they march from one meeting to the next.

The at-a-glance nature means these dashboards will have a pretty simple visual design. No widgets or dropdowns because an executive doesn’t want to have to dig for details.

A strategic dashboard would look like this one, from Ryan Sleeper, published in the Big Book of Dashboards:

Analytical Dashboards

Analytical dashboards are (this might be obvious) meant for analysts. They’ll have dropdowns and filters to allow for exploration.

This means the backend of analytical dashboards is more complex and the front end may have multiple pages or layers so the analyst can drill down and look for patterns and relationships.

Again from the Big Book of Dashboards, here’s what an Analytical Dashboard might look like:

You can tell this is a dashboard meant for analysts because (1) it has those filters on the right and (2) it has all those BANs (Big Ass Numbers) at the top.

BANs are a sure sign that you have an Analytical dashboard because the only people who can make sense of that number are the people who are so close to the data (the analysts!) that they know how to interpret that number without any help.

Everyone else needs context. For example, look at “Admins 170.” Is that number good? Bad? We need more info to make sense of it. Analysts know the data so well that they know what the number was last week. And what the number should be.

To bring a finer point to this: Whether we know it or not, when we put BANs on dashboards, we are actively shrinking our audience down to the data nerds, the analysts just like us.

Operational Dashboards

Operational dashboards are what you’d want in the nuclear power plant monitoring room. An extremely simple, basic, clear design with a visual like a bright red dot that jumps out into your face when there’s a breach.

Operational dashboards may have a complex backend but the interface is visually boring. Until it isn’t. Operational dashboards have a live connection to the data, meaning the dashboard updates in real time.

Here’s a basic example of an operational dashboard from Chandoo:

Very simplistic design. Yes there are some charts but they’re mostly gray, meant for context. The red draws your attention where it’s needed.

The three types of dashboards identified by Stephen Few have different designs, construction, purposes, and audiences.

But they leave some people out.

Where’s the Public?

Back when Few wrote his book, dashboards may have been internal tools for corporations.

But then the pandemic happened and now dashboards are everywhere.

Our audiences have grown. They’re asking different questions.

Yet we’re still using the same structures that were meant for the types of monitoring that Stephen Few outlined.

This dashboard from the Illinois Department of Education is posted on their website, meaning the audience is the public, whether or not that was the intention.

Though there are charts in here, they’re pretty confusing, aren’t they?

The attempts at plain language fall short (What does “This district is at 75% of adequacy” mean??).

Or see this one from Florida’s Department of Health:

Standardized Infection Ratio? Dashboards meant for the public don’t include insider jargon or acronyms. I can promise you that the average Floridian isn’t walking around wondering “What’s the current Standardized Infection Ratio for C. diff HAI-01?”

I’m not even sure a dashboard is the right container for public data communication in the first place. This feels far more digestible.

Think through the purpose-audience alignment for your dashboard to determine whether:

➡️ you’re trying to make too many different audiences happy in the same place

➡️ you need to ask for more funding/resources to create additional dashboards

➡️ you need to pull your analytical dashboard from the front page of your public site

The confusion about different dashboard purposes and audiences explains why your dashboard hasn’t gotten the traction you wanted. Get clarity on purpose and audience before you build.

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