Lots of the organisations we work with want to develop the ways in which they can visualise the data they collect. As a result we spend a fair amount of time building dashboards for both management and frontline staff. On the surface dashboards are simple things: they are data visualisation tools that display the key metrics that you are striving to influence in your work. However, many charities find the process of designing and implementing dashboards to be anything but simple. Here are our top tips for getting it right.

1. Don’t get too bogged down in choosing the right software

There are so many pieces of software that can be used to visualise data. They vary massively in terms of functionality and cost. The good news is that you can build effective dashboards with most of them. I know data-savvy charities that only use Excel to build dashboards. I also know organisations that have invested heavily in data visualisation platforms like Tableau. Although there is a vast difference in what those two systems can do the truth is that good dashboards tend to be simple. Creating a few bar charts and a colour-coded table does not require much from your software.

Of course there are other things to think about. You need to consider how your data is stored (Excel is a poor choice for this for a number of reasons) as well as the overall user-experience. Generally requiring staff to go to a completely separate place to review dashboards is not ideal. That’s why for the charities that we work with who use Salesforce we tend to build dashboards inside of Salesforce. Are Salesforce Dashboards the flashiest and most sophisticated data visualisation tool on the market? No. You’d struggle to create a neat visualisation of taxi usage patterns in New York like you could in Tableau. But for displaying a charity’s key performance indicators Salesforce can be incredibly effective. It also means that users can do everything inside a single system and that the dashboards are automatically connected to your underlying data.

2. Avoid too many metrics

It’s tempting when deciding what to include in a dashboard to be over-inclusive and just throw every metric that could possibly be relevant in. The problem with doing this is that there is a limit to how many metrics a user can take in. This is particularly true if you are using dashboards as a tool to drive performance. No organisation or individual can realistically focus on doing twenty things well.

That’s why we advise organisations to cap the number of metrics on a single dashboard. There is no magic number but it should probably be no more than eight. We tend to find that when we do this it forces a much more focussed discussion on what should be included and ultimately produces better metrics. A half-baked metric is much less likely to slip through the net if space is limited!

3. Focus on making insight actionable

Dashboards should be a tool for driving impact. To do this they need to tell you how things are going currently but also give pointers for what can be done to improve performance. This is particularly true for dashboards built for frontline staff. If I’m responsible for managing volunteers for a charity that runs volunteer-led programmes each month it’s obviously important for me to know that a high percentage of volunteers drop-off the radar after their first programme. However, to have any chance of changing that I need more information. What types of volunteers are most likely to drop-out? Are there any particular programmes where the problem is more or less severe?

As a general rule, for each headline metric the dashboard should also give you some information about why it is where it is. It can be tricky to achieve this, particularly when balancing the need for additional data points with the need to avoid information overload. Sometimes this can be solved with the type of drill-down functionality that is available on some platforms where clicking on the top-level chart can displays another layer of detail underneath.

4. Embed them in day-to-day work

Once you’ve built your dashboard the real test is how and when it is used. It should not be something that is referred to occasionally. Instead it should play a key role in the day-to-day workings of the charity. It should feature in team meetings and line-management. And it should be something that staff look at on a regular basis. Embedding this data-informed culture can be challenging but the rewards are huge.

We find that when organisations embark on the journey of embedding dashboards into day-to-day practice the usefulness and quality of the dashboards improve as staff suggest changes and amendments based on actually using them. This iterative process is critical to creating dashboards that are meaningful.