How to Design Your Communications Dashboard From the Insights Out—6 Easy Steps

Back in 2016, we spent a lot of space in this newsletter convincing people to integrate their data into a communications dashboard that would allow users to see all their important metrics in one place. We must have been persuasive, since dashboards have been all the rage ever since. 🙂 Everyone from Talkwalker to Tableau now pushes the dashboard concept. And for good reason; they can be very effective.

But there’s a problem. Although most dashboards look pretty, and are great at putting a lot of charts and numbers in one place, I still hear a lot of complaints: “It’s nice—but what does it tell me?”

The fault is on us. Well, not on me personally, but on the measurement industry. We got good at bringing more and more data together, and we couldn’t help ourselves. Like too many in technology, we kept thinking the more data the better.

But more data isn’t better, unless it’s useful. As we told everyone back in 1999: “Data without insights is just trivia.” (Really. It was our ad campaign.) And insights seem to be harder to find these days than a Democrat who isn’t running for president.

Design for the insights, rather than for the data

At the root of the lack-of-insight-dashboard problem is that most of them are designed from the perspective of the data that goes in, rather than the insight that comes out. Designers typically are very concerned with what kind of data goes in, where it comes from, and how can it best be displayed. Less often, and often a bit too late, do they consider just how the dashboard will achieve its true purpose by generating insights.

So, here’s how to design your communications dashboard with answers in mind:

Step 1: Start with the common questions you need to answer

Schedule a meeting with your peers, bosses, and anyone on your team that gets asked random questions by PIPs (People In Power, a.k.a., senior leadership). They’ll all know the scenario… A chance meeting in the hallway with some PIP who demands, “You know that campaign you did last quarter? How did that compare to the one we did last year?” or, “We’re getting our butts kicked by the competition! What are they doing that we’re not?” or, “Give me some good news to tell the boss; I’ve got a meeting in ten minutes and he’s pissed.”

The point is, what are the questions you get asked on a regular basis? And/or the questions you wish you had answers to at a moment’s notice. That’s the data you want to pop up first on your dashboard.

Step 2: Now make a list of what decisions need to made

Dashboards are great for looking at a variety of different communications activities and showing you the results from each one. Sadly, however, that’s not necessarily going to help you make decisions. You know the ones: “How do I prove that we need this budget?” or, “What will it take for me to say no to that idiot down the hall who keeps coming up with insane ideas for stuff we have to do?”

The whole point of evaluating different communications activities is to help you make informed decisions. Whether it’s where to deploy resources, or reallocate budgets, or give raises, there’s a bunch of decisions that communicators need to make on a regular basis. So make a list of those questions. Make sure that your dashboard can quickly and easily help you draw conclusions and make those decisions.

Step 3: Decide on what data needs to be braided

What dashboards do best is braid data together, to present metrics side-by-side to instantly reveal relationships. That’s where your most “Ah-ha!” moments will come from. Based on Steps 1 and 2, you need to make choices on what data needs to get woven into a single chart. You want to end up with no more than about three different data streams in one chart, so start with the ones that you think are most likely to correlate. You can always add more elements later.

So, for example, by combining media results, web analytics, and social engagement scores you can start to get a picture of what kind of story drives traffic to your ecommerce site, and what kind of amplification it gets to make a sale.

Or by combining data from your events with data from survey research, you can see what type of event—online vs. IRL, splashy vs. intimate—has the greatest impact on your trust levels with a specific audience.

In your brainstorming session, discuss what types of activities are most likely to impact one another. Make a wish list of what you wish you knew—e.g., “I wonder if the authors we spend the most time with are actually impacting our goal conversions?”

Step 4: Cut out the blah, blah, blah…

Now make sure that every chart, table, and graph on your communications dashboard either answers a question or enables someone to make a better decision. Delete any chart, graph, or data point that doesn’t add value or that distracts you from telling your story. And I’m not talking about just your “Good news: we did great!” story. What story does senior leadership need to hear? The purpose of your dashboard is to help you tell it.

Step 5: Get the bad news first—and learn from it

Design your dashboard so you learn from your mistakes. Make sure that everything that presents your data shows your results from worst performing to best. (Chill: “You learn more from failure than you ever do from success.”) What you want to know is which of your efforts succeeded less well than others. I call them the “SLWs” (Succeed Less Wells), because it sounds better than failures. The point is that you need insight into what happened; why something didn’t work and why something else did. Design your dashboard to deliver it.

Step 6: Make sure every graphic tells a story

The most effective type of chart is one that shows resources vs. results. Like this one:

(Thanks to Katie Ostreko, Director of Marketing and New Product Development at izzy+)

This sort of 2 x 2, value vs. cost chart compares the value you’ve delivered (typically measured by a quality index, an engagement index, or other bespoke measure of value) with the resources required to get that value.

The second-best chart is one that shows the results of different efforts over time. For example, tracking web traffic or goal conversions relative to quality or quantity of coverage.

And that’s it. That’s how to design a communications dashboard that is guaranteed to bring you insights. And if you need help designing yours, drop me a line at

(Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash, illustration by Bill Paarlberg)

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