Designing Dashboards

The Usability of Dashboards (Part 2): Does Anyone Understand Them? [Guest Post]

By Tristan Kromer and Anteo Quiroz
Share on LinkedIn Tweet about this on Twitter Share on Facebook

This post was written by Tristan Kromer, Innovation Coach & Founder at Kromatic, and Anteo Quiroz, Innovation Coach and Head of Sales at Kromatic.

You speak a very specific language than your customers—that of your product. Probably very well. But you also need to speak the language of your customer who uses the product.

If our earlier reference to “This facility has gone 5,843 days without an assimilation” left you stranded at a starbase, you probably don’t speak Trek. If our recent assimilation dashboard is meant for Trekkies, that might not be a problem. But specialists in any domain tend to invent their own language very quickly, and it becomes second-nature to them, forgetting that no one else speaks the language of Star Fleet.

>> Related: UX Design for Embedded Analytics <<

One startup I worked with had a clear value proposition for small businesses—to “increase your CLTV”—a very important metric. But after a round of discovery testing, they quickly realized that their small business Mom and Pop customers didn’t know what CLTV stood for.

So they changed the value proposition to “increase customer lifetime value.” Mom and Pop still didn’t know what they were talking about.

By testing the language, they were able to figure out that simply saying “keep customers around for longer, buying more” was going to be more effective with their target audience.

Dashboards are the same. Your fancy icons might make sense to you and save precious space, but to the customer, your dashboard is an incoherent mess. You have to make sure you didn’t just build the world’s most elaborate Christmas tree ornament.

The clearest, most easily understood dashboard should make sense to the customer, even if you remove elements (like the labels) in a Cloze test.

Example Comprehension Test Guide

  • What does this chart signify?
  • What does this icon mean?
  • What does this information tell you?
  • What would it mean if the number went up? If it went down?

Can you use it?

Many high-level business dashboards are relatively static since the data isn’t changing moment by moment, so interaction and usability are often secondary considerations. Even when it comes to the analytics use case, there is often a design assumption from engineers that the analysis is being done by a power user who will want a ton of features and doesn’t mind struggling with a ton of dropdowns.

But a lot of folks, myself included, just want something simple. You have to set up a dashboard before you use it, and setting one up is a fairly traumatic process—particularly if you’re a senior executive who struggles activating “the snapchat.”

Out-of-the-box configurations and a good onboarding flow can help get the user to that first moment of happiness when they actually see something that’s important to them. So, know what the job-to-be-done is, and make sure the customer can find that happiness as quickly as possible.

Usability Test Guide

  • Where is the information about ____ on this page?
  • How would you set up a chart based on ____?
  • What do you think that button will do?
  • Can you show me how you use your current system?
  • Why did you just grimace?
  • Walk me through the steps you took to solve the last problem that made you grimace.
  • I noticed that you reviewed the bottom of the dashboard and worked your way up. Why?

Will you use it?

There are many great dashboards out there that no one looks at. If one of your jobs-to-be-done is an information radiator, you’ll have to do something to make sure your dashboard becomes a habit and not a forgotten New Year’s Eve resolution.

It’s unlikely that every customer is going to buy a laptop and special monitor just to display your dashboard next to the coffee machine, so it’s worth thinking about how to set triggers to bring people back to your URL.

Recurring emails with reports, alerts sent straight to Slack, or even an SMS can all be possible channels for triggers. Use them, but don’t abuse them. Excessive alerts can encourage people to turn them off, which defeats the purpose.

As a rule of thumb, if a report isn’t worth looking at weekly, it’s probably not worth looking at. You might as well just have a spreadsheet if the data doesn’t need to be more up-to-date than that.

Daily habits are common. Weekly habits are possible. But monthly habits are very, very hard to build and stick to.

Example Customer Discovery Guide

  • How often do you review this information?
  • Think back to the last time you reviewed this information. What was the task you completed just before reviewing this information? Is this a one-off or part of a routine?
  • What trigger do you use to remind yourself to review this information?
  • When was the last time you forgot to review this information as planned?

What are you going to do about it?

In the end, if no one is going to do something based on your dashboard, then it’s really just for PR and morale. Again, that’s one possible job-to-be-done, but then don’t put too much effort into building it.

Some dashboards are clear. A “low on fuel” indicator means go to the nearest gas station. Some are less clear or easy to put off. Often a “check engine” light means you might want to consider seeing the mechanic at some point, when you get around to it, after you get back from vacation, and after the car starts making a funny sound.

Remember that your dashboard has different users with different needs, and they may be looking at the same numbers. Do they know what to do if the numbers go down? Or does your dashboard need to tell them?

Example Contextual Inquiry Guide

  • Can I watch you review your current dashboard?
  • What would you do if this number changed?
  • How quickly do you need to respond if that number goes up or down?
  • How might you share this information with other colleagues? Walk me through the steps you took the last time you shared information from this page.


Dashboards can be amazing, or they can be a complete waste of time. Make sure you’re not wasting your (or your users’) time by truly understanding why you’re building a dashboard, for whom, how it will be used, and how often.

Using basic testing methods like customer discovery, comprehension testing, usability tests, and contextual inquiry will tell you a lot about what you need to build to make your experience amazing.

Get more dashboard design best practices in The Definitive Guide to Dashboard Design >

Originally published September 19, 2019

About the Author

Tristan Kromer is a lean startup coach and founder of Kromatic. He works with innovation teams and leaders to create amazing products and build startup ecosystems. Anteo Quiroz is an innovation coach at Kromatic. He works with innovation teams and leaders to create amazing products and build startup ecosystems.