BI Trends

Not Just KPIs: Tell a Story Through Your Dashboards

By Chris Valas
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“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”Jean Luc Godard

It’s strange to quote an avant-garde French film director in an introduction to designing dashboards that tell a story. But Godard was onto something. The essential mess of reality – in our case, the data we have at hand about our business, needs form and structure to be useful. Or even understandable.

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More importantly, while facts alone can be useful, it’s the context of those facts that matters. And it’s the story around a piece of data that gives it context.

For example, perhaps there’s a piece of data that your manager wants on the department dashboard: Percentage increase in sales this month. Let’s say it was 6.2%.

What’s the context? The story? This number is only relevant in relation to the history of the number. Have sales been going up in general? Is this higher or lower percentage growth than the months prior? What if the recent values have been both higher and lower than this?

So rather than simply placing the isolated number on your dashboard, you should also include the history of that number as a time-series, marking this month’s number with a label or a distinguishing color. Now the data is telling a story, of sorts. “We had been growing 3 to 4% per month – now it’s 6.2%.”

How much history you show on a chart depends on your audience. Remember, you’re directing your story at a particular group of people. Do they look at this number every month, and have an understanding of the growth average? Or do they need additional context and background?

Now let’s try a different scenario. Same chart, but perhaps the percentage growth is lower than it has been in recent months. “Recently, we’ve seen growth averaging around 8 to 9%, but it has dropped to 6.2%.” Same number, but an entirely different story.

Your manager may also be interested in what this number means for the future. If you place a trend line on the chart, you begin to tell a story about what might happen down the road. Another option is to place a trend line only on a selection of the data, say the current quarter, and compare the trend to the previous quarter.  Now you’re telling a story about what might happen in relation to what already happened.

Beyond the historical and future trends, the manager may be curious about what is making the number move up or down. One option is to drop another variable on the chart – for example, showing the number of sales reps visiting customers over the same time period.  Do they correlate? Do they not? Either way, it’s now once again a different kind of story.

As you think about it, you’ll soon realize that most numbers should always be presented in context. Sitting alone, 6.2% can literally mean almost anything. Taken in context, explained by story, not only does it mean something specific, it can move your audience to actually do something about it.

So the first rule of storytelling with data is find and present the context. This will almost always involve multiple series of numbers related to your data point.

Know your audience

The second rule is to always remember you are speaking to an audience – and that audience is seeking to hear something that informs them, that moves them to action when necessary, that reassures them when all is well.

If you can get a tight focus for that audience, then you can narrow your story and tailor it just for their needs. For a broader audience, you’ll want to accommodate a wider spectrum of understanding.

This can be done with multiple charts, drilldowns, dense information displays, etc. There are a number of viable ways to show multiple-variable data.

But the most important thing is to simply ask your audience, “what information do you need from me and what form do you need it in? What do you need or want to understand about this data?” Get them to draw it on a whiteboard. Or lead them through a short example or two. One thing to note – it’s best to avoid showing a finished dashboard – the rougher the better. If it looks finished, if the mockup looks too good, then people tend to just say it looks good, rather than thinking about whether it really answers their questions.

When you go away and create first versions, mark them Draft, ask for feedback and then refine to get to a next version. Think of it as prototyping.

It can help to think of your dashboard the way a screenwriter thinks of a storyboard: A progression of data and images that leads the viewer from a beginning to an end. And like any good story-teller, you develop a story over time, with multiple drafts, and much editing. And a little help from your audience!


Originally published November 16, 2015; updated on May 20th, 2021

About the Author

Chris Valas is the Senior Director of Engineering at Logi Analytics. He has spent over 30 years working in software engineering.