5 Questions to ask before building a visualization

5 Questions to ask before building a visualization

In the current digital age where we have endless raw data, the ability to build powerful and actionable visualization is of primary importance. The developers are spoiled for choice with a wide gamut of visualizations available to them through various tools.

One issue that I have seen with visualization developers is that they tend to jump-in right away into developing the visuals without giving due importance to the type of data that they are handling. While making sense of data is very important, we should also keep in mind the basic principles of data visualization.

According to Stephen Few, the thought leader on dashboard design best practices, “A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.” Keeping that in mind, the next obvious question arises – Where should we start if we want to create a really effective dashboard? Here are the guiding questions to start with:

  1. Whom does this dashboard serve?
  2. What is the dashboard meant to tell them?
  3. What specific action(s) should the dashboard drive?
  4. Does the dashboard effectively convey the message?
  5. Does the dashboard effectively support the desired action?

If you’re doing a polish session or custom demo for a customer, the first three are questions that you should answer in discovery with them. Otherwise, it’s up to you, as the author, to decide. Whether you’re working solo or with a customer, you must be sure to get very specific with your answers. When you try to appeal to everybody, you end up appealing to nobody.

For example, let’s say you’re working with sales data to develop a quota KPI for the sales of a certain type of product – there are multiple different audiences you could have. You need to think about who is going to see the dashboard, and therefore what action they might want to take as a result of looking at it. If it’s for leadership, maybe they need to look at this KPI to judge whether quotas are realistic. If it’s for sales managers, maybe they need to see who on their team needs coaching, or maybe they can identify peers whose teams are performing really well, so they can ask for advice. You would likely design a slightly different dashboard to support each of these three actions.

It’s really important in dashboard design to begin with the end in mind, and the guiding questions will help you do that.