Designing Dashboards

The Role of Persona-Segmented Dashboards in User Onboarding [Guest Post]

By Ryan MacCarrigan
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This post is part two in a two-part blog series written by Ryan MacCarrigan, founding principal at LeanStudio.

A common early challenge in dashboard development is figuring out when the dashboard will appear in a user flow. If multiple use-cases for the dashboard are known for multiple end users, then the best way to design the dashboard to account for this is through a persona-segmented approach.

Some designers assume it’s best to start by building a one-size-fits-all version of the dashboard that lets users customize features and layouts on their own. While it’s true that some motivated users will invest the time to customize their dashboards, many others will churn without experiencing the product’s full potential.

The reality is, for most new users, the prospect of having to invest in customization can feel daunting. Some users may not ever experience “first success” with the product if the functionality of the dashboard is not immediately apparent to them the first time they interact with it. The best way to accelerate these users to “first success” is through dashboard personalization which can be achieved by asking key questions during the onboarding process.

Personas are also essential because they include details about observed behaviors — how do users currently solve their pain points using other tools or work arounds? This data can be collected through in situ observation of their current step-by-step workflow or tool usage. These observations are important because users often struggle to clarify what their actual needs are when asked. We shouldn’t always expect accurate answers when users are asked to recall past behaviors. Personas help fill in these gaps.

Of course, it should go without saying that good dashboard design—all product design for that matter—should begin with this user-centered mindset whether you use personas or not.

User Experience Design Best Practices

Understanding of basic design heuristics is also an important part of the dashboard design process. Jakob Nielsen’s design heuristics are a great starting point for thinking about the visual and functional relationships among dashboard elements, which can lead to many useful questions and the identification of opportunities for improvement.

What kind of chart and accompanying color palette would best represent the information in a way that matches accepted design patterns? How detailed do the labels need to be in this widget? What happens if we double-click the widget? Was it apparent that additional features or functionality were embedded?

Does the visual layout of the dashboard change in real-time if we alter its display settings? How can we quickly switch between saved layouts, or return to the default layout, without causing anxiety? Do we permit custom layouts to be saved in a distinct way from system-generated or templated layouts? Are templates derived from the known behaviors of a common set of users, or are they generated dynamically from the answers to key questions during onboarding, or some other behavioral metrics tracked in the product?

Thinking through these questions and the design heuristics behind them is an important part in the process of creating a great user experience.

Relationship Between Dashboard UX and User Onboarding

The role of a dashboard in promoting user engagement is not discussed nearly enough, even though dashboards are often the first thing new users see after they’ve been onboarded, or the last thing they see before logging off or switching to another browser tab. For this reason, it’s fair to say the dashboard is the beating heart of the product.

We can’t lose sight of the relationship between the effects of cognitive load, the technical needs of our target users, our desire to promote long-term user engagement, and the need to reduce churn rates of recently onboarded users. Frequent usability tests and interviews with new users will show us whether they truly see and understand the function and value of the dashboard. And whether onboarding has been designed to facilitate “first success” quickly.

The dashboard creates a window into the soul of the product—if that window is blurry or broken, it will lead to a loss of users that could have been prevented.


Good dashboard design isn’t just about understanding your users and your user flows. It’s about surfacing the right information for the right set of users at the right time. Given the tech-savvy nature of users, dashboards aren’t going anywhere any time soon. Whether you’re just using a spreadsheet as a dashboard, or interacting daily with a dashboard hosted on a SaaS platform, it’s worth investing in UX that keeps your customers happy for a long time.

Read part 1: A UX Roadmap for Effective Dashboard Design

Written with editorial assistance from Sarah Han, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.


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Originally published May 7, 2020

About the Author

Ryan MacCarrigan is the Founding Principal of LeanStudio, a product design and innovation consultancy based in San Francisco. He coaches product leaders, entrepreneurs, and corporate innovation teams on how to validate and launch new products faster.