What you need to know about designing dashboards for the C-suite

Nelson Davis

Nelson Davis

It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. Word of the awesome Tableau work you’ve been doing for your company has made it to the highest level of leadership. When you present your work, it will be the first time the C-suite has seen anything related to Tableau, visual analytics, and these beautiful new dashboards. We all know that you only get one shot to make a first impression and that this is bigger than you or even your group. This presentation will likely determine the long-term future of Tableau as a tool at your company. Are you feeling any pressure? Follow these four tips and you, your work, and Tableau will shine like the stars.

Understanding “have to” vs. “want to”

We’re all familiar with things that we have to use versus the things we want to use. Think about the car that you drive today. Is it your dream car? We’ve all imagined what it would be like to experience driving that dream car: slick, fast, and beautiful. It’s more powerful, thoughtfully designed, with every detail perfectly executed. Like a dream car, the final product of the dashboards we create should provide the user with a similar experience.

The idea here is to leverage Tableau to design dashboards that people want to use versus designing dashboards that people have to use. Is your dashboard intuitively designed for an inexperienced user? Is your text legible? Does the most important information jump off the page? Does it take more than 10 seconds for the visualization to render? Tableau software has created some amazing tools, but if they’re not thoughtfully implemented, they can suffer from many of the same problems of other bulky, antiquated solutions. That’s why you should always have your end goal in mind, and be willing to go the extra mile to create dashboards that even non-analysts will enjoy using.

The little things matter

The longer I spend in the world of data analysis, dashboards, and visual analytics, the more I realize it’s actually the little things that make the most difference: fonts, color, shapes, images, formatting, and design. As soon as your work leaves your hands and enters those of the end user, look and feel becomes king. It’s very unlikely (unfortunately) that your end user will appreciate all the effort dedicated to SQL development, designing the data model, and verifying that your business logic was correct. If the remaining project time is only spent putting together some “correct” analysis in Tableau and throwing it in a dashboard without giving thought to how that end user experiences your dashboards or how you could customize the experience for a given environment, your work may be unusable for the business.

Here are a few things to consider as you go through dashboard design and implementation:

  • Does the company has specific design guidelines you could (and should) leverage?
  • Do you have to use all the Tableau defaults (e.g., Arial font, Tableau 10 color palette, 1000x800px-sized dashboard, etc.), or would consistent formatting enhance the overall look and feel?
  • If a picture is worth a thousand words, have you thoughtfully incorporated shapes, images, and logos into your dashboard when appropriate?

From my personal experience, look and feel, along with contextual visual design for the business environment, are the greatest drivers of widespread adoption for any organization. If you are designing dashboards that are both insightful and beautiful, everyone will want one.

Begin with the end in mind

Borrowing from Stephen Covey and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, you should also be designing dashboards with the end in mind. At the beginning of any project, think about who the typical end user will be—will this be the first time they see Tableau? Are high-level aggregations of the data going to be enough, or will they want to dig into the raw data as well? Through what medium will they be interacting with your dashboard (e.g., tablet, desktop, mobile device, etc.)? What’s the typical screen size/resolution of that medium? Do you want them to land on Tableau Server and find your dashboard or would a landing page provide a better experience?

Thinking about the end product before you start will allow you to better focus your overall design vision throughout the course of the project, and provide a cleaner, more intuitive end result.

Think win-win

Another one of Covey’s habits we can apply here includes the creative license to think outside the box to create a solution that works for everyone.

One of the best examples of this comes from a story that I’ve heard many times, and goes something like this: “My boss is coming to me and saying that she really like the work I’m doing in Tableau. Problem is, now I’m having to spend a few hours every week making screenshots of my vizzes and sending them to my boss so they can be included in the weekly PowerPoint for upper management. I wish they’d just use the dashboards I make in Tableau so I didn’t have to waste my time with these screenshots! There has to be a better way!”

Of course there’s a better way, but to get there, you’ll have to think outside the box. One solution (which I’ve blogged about) includes taking advantage of Tableau’s ability to mimic PowerPoint in your dashboards. This lets your visualizations connect directly to data, and direct printing/PDF generation from Tableau means there’s no need for screenshots. Management gets better visualizations when there’s new data, and you won’t have to spend half your week taking screenshots of Excel—a true win-win.

While this functionality’s been around for a while now, Tableau is still often considered to be the new kid on the block. Finding innovative ways to incorporate it into existing systems in your company will be key for a well-executed implementation.

Prep for success

Incorporating these four tips into the work that you are doing with Tableau at your company can be game-changing. When the opportunity inevitably arrives for to present this fantastic tool to your organization’s leaders, you’ll be well-positioned and prepared.

At Slalom we strive to solve some of the hardest business problems and bring new, innovative solutions to the marketplace. As we look at data analytics in the Tableau space, these ideas are the heart of our playbook. As your company or group looks to expand your Tableau implementation we hope you leverage these ideas to make it as successful as possible. Need help? Contact Slalom’s team of Tableau experts at tableau@slalom.com.


About Nelson Davis
Nelson is passionate about Tableau evangelism and providing new and innovative solutions to data issues both large and small.  Having been a Tableau user for almost 3 years, Nelson has come to believe that visual design best practices are what ultimately drives usability and adoption, the foundations of a Tableau Center of Excellence.  Nelson helps lead the Slalom’s Tableau team in Atlanta, and is a very active member of the Atlanta Tableau User’s Group giving a number of presentations in 2013.  Two time winner of Viz of the Day, and speaker at TCC13, Nelson is always looking for opportunities to encourage others to take their Tableau work to the next level.

One Response to What you need to know about designing dashboards for the C-suite

  1. Pingback: Designing Dashboards for the C-Suite | Brian Gogle

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