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Why Are My Data Visualizations Ineffective?

Ineffective data visualizations are a top frustration felt by many data analysts and their teams.

Before we overview a handful of data visualization techniques that you can begin to leverage when building effective dashboards, it’s important to take a step back and ask yourself who you want the dashboard to be effective for? In this post, we will provide insights in how to solve for this common frustration and provide tips to start using right away.

Before you begin building a data visual, get to know your audience first to increase effectiveness

Often times, data visualizations are ineffective because they are built for the wrong audience in mind. The perceived value of dashboards, too, gets lost due to poor communication with the end users.

Find out all you can about the audience you will be presenting the data visualization to. Meet with as many members of the audience as you can to learn their biggest pain points, their work goals, and ultimately, how the data visualization will help them make better decisions.

Don’t be afraid to learn about your audience, even if it’s just a few members of it, from a personal level. Consider setting up a lunch or a coffee meeting to just get to know each other. This will start to establish a trust between you and them and reveal helpful anecdotes that can be lost in the formality of the day-to-day. If you’re short on time or your audience is not on site, try as best you can by email or phone.

The more of a connection you can find with your audience, the better build you will have because you will know a bit more about how they tick and what they’re looking for from your visualization.

Common reasons why data visualizations are not effective

  1. Failure to understand what the business value could and should be for the available data;
  2. Not engaging dashboard users early in the process to learn what they want from the available data;
  3. Insufficient or ineffective communication between stakeholders, users, and the data architects;
  4. Poorly designed dashboards and charts without a path to behavior change


Without properly planning ahead of a build with these common adoption barriers, at least at some level, it will be hard for your visualizations to have long-term success.

While most dashboard architects do their best to consider these adoption barriers in their planning processes, it’s not uncommon to become sidetracked mid-process with other tasks and in-the-moment priorities that take the focus away from the prep work.

After all, as critical as this industry has become for businesses, the demand for trained professionals is much greater than the supply. Anyone working with data is stretched thin to do “all things data-related” even if it steers clear in the other direction of their core responsibilities.

All of the above points require interaction with people, and in an age where data is king, trying to convince people to engage in human stuff is a bit of a sales pitch that many folks either don’t want to do or, perhaps, know how to do it at all.

Let’s look at each one in a bit more detail.

Failure to understand what the business value could and should be for the available data

Any successful endeavor needs a clear and well-articulated goal — an objective to strive for. Don’t bother even starting to create visualizations without knowing what the desired outcome is. Again, it sounds like common sense but I’ve seen it far too many times where people dive right into the data without a concise vision.

Don’t fall into this trap, the work up front is worth the payoff. Building a dashboard against a proven failed strategy is like running in place — you put in all the energy and resources and get nowhere.

Not engaging dashboard users early in the process to learn what they want from the available data

Bridging business goals, data and users together is damn hard even when done by a pro. If we are missing the user element then we have data, we have a vision but we don’t have a means to actualize it effectively. Sure, you might get lucky from time to time by not engaging users, especially if it is a small user base, but not doing so is an open invitation to add risk and poor to no user adoption.

A user has needs and it’s part of your responsibility to know what they are and build a dashboard to meet those needs.

Insufficient or ineffective communication between stakeholders, users, and the data architects

Data quality is a behemoth breathing down the neck of the analyst. It is often a burden that is unshared and uncommunicated responsibility until it is forced into the light through user interaction. Time spent as an analyst is finding and formatting the data to analyze, limiting their bandwidth to perform a thorough analysis.

While not the only reason, getting an open channel of communication between all interested parties is a mechanism to address data quality issues early and devise strategies to mitigate or improve. There’s no logical reason to not communicate.

Poorly designed dashboards and charts without a route to behavior change

Solving the three previous factors will not be an easy feat if not successfully manifested into a user interface.

Business goals, data, and user needs are all brought together in the user interface, typically resulting in a complete dashboard.

When these three variables are not accounted for it’s due to:

  • The dashboard having no connection with what the business is seeking to solve
  • The dashboard has little or no intuitive actionable outcomes for the audience to walk away with
  • The dashboard was not built with data visualization best practices in mind

The value of data visualization is rooted in early and often communication

At the end of the day, improving the effectiveness of a data visualization has nothing to do with the skills needed to build the product. Rather, it’s a balance of good communication practices that are fine-tuned over time. And because communication is not necessarily a top priority for those in the data industry, it’s a shared frustration.

And while not exactly earth-shattering or breaking news, good communication skills for many people are a learned and practiced behavior through the application of the process. Simply put, it takes time and patience. Yet, the better you get at the human-side of this process, the better and more effective your visualizations will be.

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How to Extend Your UX Skills to Analytics UX

I’m sure everyone has heard the excitement over analytics and how sexy data science is as a career path. Though there is rarely mantion of analytics UX. Analytics is often thought of as highly technical and difficult to get into. That’s not untrue but there are still very high value opportunities that don’t require a background in stats or database design, i.e. analytics UX. Enter the Dashboard Consultant. For the UI/UX Designer, becoming a Dashboard Consultant can follow a well-defined path, as it is a path I have traveled myself and I am going to share my learnings from that journey here and what I think is an optimal path having the experience to reflect upon.

What is a Dashboard Consultant?

A blend between UI/UX, business acumen and aspects of analytics such as data visualization and surface knowledge of data structures and databases are the basic ingredients. All of which can be learned in a matter of weeks to have a basic competence, though mastery will take years. The primary focus is mapping data to business value for the end users and stakeholders. Giving them access to actionable outcomes that either positively changes behavior and/or enables direct action to be taken to improve business outcomes. The closer those outcomes come to increasing profits the better. The role of the Dashboard Consultant is fundamentally to narrow the gap between data and profit through a user interface.

What Skills Do I Need for Analytics UX?

I’m assuming you already have UI/UX Design nailed and that covers a lot as it typically extends over to business acumen. However, a major word of caution here and a lesson I had to painfully learn. Analytics can be highly political and heated. Being overly evangelical about users and UX principles can and often do inflame already volatile situations. My approach is now pragmatic and firmly based in years of experience in application of UX to analytics. For more junior UXers I advise subtly over enthusiasm as you build up your business experience.

The skills you should already have and that will be used (not exhaustive):

  • UX research, interviews, personas
  • Journey mapping
  • Wire-framing and concept design
  • Consulting expertise

All that being said, the main new skills, with an hours estimate to get a basic competence if taught by a pro, that need to be added are:

  • Data visualization best practices – 16 hours
  • Chart selection process (big part of analytics UX) – 20 hours
  • Basic, very basic, knowledge of database structures – 16 hours
  • Facilitation expertise to run the occasional workshop – 16 hours theory with 8 hours of practical application
  • UI capability knowledge of the popular dashboarding tools like QlikView, Qlik Sense, Tableau, Power BI. This is not as hard as it may sound. – 4 hours per tool
  • Optional expertise in developing in one or more of the tools – highly variable

You will note that technical tools of dashboard development are left till last and this is intentional as there are many a person that can develop dashboards, there are very few that can design them well enough to have significant business value and impact. So, if you do have the aptitude to pick up some dashboard development expertise, then well and good. It is not vital. The value is in producing the design that wins. This will be in contrast to much of the prevailing advice out there and I only speak from my own experience as a dashboard consultant, which rarely involves me developing the dashboard. If development is needed I may do it myself, usually not worth my time, or I hand the work over to other contractors or, as is usually the case, the client has their own developers already.

What’s Next?

Be sure to check out the basics of dashboard UI design.

This has been a cursory view of what is needed and there is obviously a lot of detail behind the steps above. If people are interested, I’d be happy to write more on analytics UX and go into some more background of my own journey as well as resources and materials that would constitute the 80-hour investment for such a career upgrade. Interest can be expressed as likes, comments, resharing, tweets @nicksight, etc!

Enterprise Dashboard Layout: Keeping it Simple

There are many ways to approach dashboard layout and design, but I have found value in starting with a fixed layout that enables a basic narrative for rapidly identifying if action is needed and then providing the necessary journey to understand what action is needed. The layout can then be adjusted as necessary.

The Simple Approach to Dashboard Layout

Overall layout has four areas that can largely be standardized across platforms to start making consistent user experiences irrespective if created in Tableau, Qlikview, Qlik Sense, Power BI, etc:

  • Navigation
  • Filters
  • KPIs – should I act?
  • Charts – what action should I take?

Dashboard Layout Introduction-04

How to Tell a Basic Story Through the Dashboard Layout

Let’s take a look at the ideal flow of the generic enterprise dashboard template. Opening the dashboard should land us the on home/summary tab for a specific user/persona. The journey begins by selecting the navigation tabs. From there the user scans the KPIs to get a pulse of the state of the business. Should there be any call to action needed then one of these summary charts will make it easily identifiable, typically by color. More focused exploration can happen on the other tabs of the dashboard, accessible via the navigation tabs.

Dashboard Layout Introduction-05

Should a call to action be needed, but it is not clear exactly what, then the user is visually directed to one or more of the four detailed charts either by color association and/or comments.

Dashboard Layout Introduction-01


In this example we can see the projected revenue for the week is below target. This is indicated by the kpi being orange in color. Scanning to the main dashboard area for more orange lands us on the inventory chart and we can see the stock count is only 200 but we project to sell 5,000 units.

Dashboard Layout Introduction-02

Since we have tied an action to each chart then we know to call a specific number and find out what is happening with the inventory. Do we need to ship more units or is it simply a case of the inventory count being innacurate. Either way, an action is required.

Dashboard Layout Introduction-03

With this rather simple layout of a dashboard you can see how a basic narrative can lead to powerful change. However, it may look simple in the design, but making it simple requires a lot of ground work.

In the next article we will look at the process that can get you there. Be sure to visit the Insight Burger post to see how important design thinking and the UX process is to dashboard design.

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The Insight Burger – A Primer on Behavioural Change with Data

A burger sits before you, and a decision. To eat or not to eat. Would access to data cause a behavioural change?
What if you could see the impact of eating the burger before you ate it. Your risk of heart attack goes up .3%. Your weight will go up .1lbs by next Tuesday. And your LDL cholesterol will enter a warning range.
Why might that data make you think twice. If it was personal to you and not some average of a bunch of people. The impact is compounded as you ate a pizza yesterday and a carbonara the day before. You receive the information in a timely manner, at the point of eating the burger, not 3 weeks afterwards. The information is relevant to what you are doing, i.e. it is health and diet information. And, finally, it is actionable. Will I eat it, yes or no. The information allows for a change in behaviour.
Maybe you will look at burgers differently now, but hopefully you will see how data can help you act differently and, hence induce a behavioural change.


In the next article we will explore how this becomes manifest in an enterprise-grade dashboard and why a dilligent design process leads to increased profits.

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The Dashboard Design Kit

A revolutionary approach to dashboard design and data visualization forged in the fires of consulting, UX, data science and data visualization. With this kit you instantly add a set of processes to enable you to combine business goals and data to achieve realistic enterprise-grade dashboards. You win, your team wins and the business wins!

For more visit dashboarddesignkit.com.