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October 15, 2019

4 Tips for Building Powerful Executive Dashboards

By: Keelin McDonell

Challenge accepted!

Designing and building dashboards for executives is one of the most stressful undertakings for any business analyst (and not only because C-level executives and vice presidents tend to have incredibly high standards!). 

When it comes to dealing with senior stakeholders, analysts have a huge challenge on their hands. They must be able to craft a reporting solution that is thorough, intelligible, and, above all, useful for a group of folks who typically have very little time to learn the ins and outs of the company’s reporting platform of choice. You need to figure out what story you’re trying to tell with the data. It’s a mix of requirements that could leave even the most seasoned dashboard-builder in a panic. 

With the right upfront communication, however, it’s easy for executives and analytics experts to agree on a dashboard experience that meets everyone’s needs.

Here are a few tips we here at Narrative Science have found useful in forming an executive-analyst dream team: 

1. Agree on Scope

When building a dashboard for an executive, a good first step is to meet to agree on what they need to understand and how much time they want to spend reviewing this information. For example, when I sit down with our revenue operations manager, Brent Silberman, we always talk about a few key questions:

  • What is the theme of the dashboard? (e.g., “I want to know how our outbound marketing is performing on a weekly basis.”)
  • What are the analytics that must be included? (e.g., “Click-through rates, opens, leads, opportunities, pipeline growth.”)
  • What is the cadence of interaction? (e.g., “I want to review this for 10 minutes on my commute to work on Monday morning.”)
  • What decisions do you need to make after reviewing this dashboard? (e.g., “I want to decide whether we will continue our latest email campaign or pull back and recalibrate.”)

By starting with this list, we quickly arrive at the simplest view that still tells the story I need to know.

2. Keep it Clean

In recent years, business intelligence (BI) tools have absolutely exploded with fancy new features, extensions, and artificial intelligence that make them true platforms. This gives the business analyst an enormous toolkit for creating reports. Unfortunately, it can also lead to information overload, culminating in dashboards that are chock-full of complicated charts and graphs and little free screen space. This poses all sorts of challenges to those executives (like myself) who are not “dashboard-natives” and frequently consume reports on an iPhone screen or embedded in an email. 

Analysts should remember that less is more in these cases and push their executive stakeholders to winnow their requirements down to the essentials. Sure, some cool features will go unused, but remember: the point is to understand the data instantly, not see it in a dozen different ways. 

3. Lead with the Summary (But Offer a Path to the Details)

Unlike other dashboard audiences, executives tend to need quick data snapshots that provide a high-level readout on their business objectives. Their immediate need is not to explore the data but to understand overall performance so that they can direct their team on what details to investigate. 

For this reason, Quill is a great complement for busy leaders who want to know at a glance what their dashboard is highlighting. This information can then be copied, shared, and excerpted—all in plain English—in a format any recipient can understand instantly.

Narratives can also make outliers more apparent than a chart by stating exactly what is happening in a trendline. And for the more detail-oriented executives, Quill allows the user to drill further into visualizations in order to tell stories about specific slices of time or particular measures and dimensions. With this capability, the analyst is able to keep the main dashboard view well-ordered while offering deeper analysis for those with the time (and screen size) to pursue it.

4. Bias Your BI Toward Action

Keeping executives informed is an important part of your BI objectives, but truly great dashboards go a step beyond, helping senior stakeholders make critical business decisions for the future. 

You may have noticed that I’ve mentioned Brent, and I always review the decisions I need to make from the data before building any dashboard. It’s critical that your reporting helps your executive team shape the future of the business and not just review the results of the past. Otherwise, your BI tools become just another status update whose value is murky at best.

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