Choosing A Visualization For Your Dashboard


A C-level executive recently handed a 42-page stack of tabular reports to me and said business dashboards would need to be a priority for him. This isn’t uncommon. In today’s analysis paralysis world, analytic individuals often mistake exploratory analysis for explanatory analysis. To move to a true bottom-line impacting analytic culture, you should move away from laborious reporting to quick glances at key metrics which impact strategy and tactical decisions. That is the main goal of business dashboards but choosing a visualization is just as important. You should be able to very quickly glance at the key metrics driving an operational area and know whether to stay the course or change actions for a more favorable outcome.

In a 30-minute business analytics coaching session with this CFO, we were able to boil down the 42 pages into 5 KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) and 5 trends he looks at regularly to adjust actions. However, one of his challenges was choosing a visualization. It’s our job to choose a visualization which allows the reader to quickly interpret data. We want to keep cognitive processing to a minimum. We don’t want them spending time thinking about, “How do I read this graph?” We want them to quickly determine what’s my next course of action.

I always recommend, “Storytelling with Data” by Cole Nussbaumer Knafilic. She masterfully breaks the process into 6 simple steps. Even if your not a creative person, this book will help you quickly and easily implement function, form, and design best practices. Here are a couple of tips to get you started: Simple Text If you only need to convey one or a couple of numbers, use simple text. In the Gross Profit example, we might be tempted to put the data into a bar chart, but that’s added information the reader would have to weed through when all they are really looking for is a single number telling them how off target they are.

Choosing a visualization
Business dashboards – Simple Text

Tables In our analysis paralysis world, we are tempted to put lists or tables on business dashboards. Tables are great for mixed audiences because they will just locate the row and column that is pertinent to them. However, just because the dashboarding tool “Workspace Advance” from Cognos has scrolling functionality for large tables, you should still think carefully before using it on a dashboard. Use tables for summarized data and allow the end user to drill-thorough to a more detailed report if they need to get into the weeds of the data. In the Table example, they summarized the information as a % of total year. This allows for a quick comparison on how they are doing versus other regions. The table is also drillable so they can drill down to the country for comparison in a particular region.

Choosing a visualization
Business Dashboards – Table

To take the ease of understanding one step further, in the heatmap table, I put conditional formatting on the data to draw the end users eyes to higher percentages.

Choosing a visualization
Business Dashboards – Heatmap table

Bar and Column Charts Bar or column charts are very common as they are common for a reason. We all know how to read them. Bar charts are great for categorical data, however, as we add more data points, each categorical data becomes harder to read. I recommend that if you have more than 3 data points for a category, consider using a point graph. You can see in the bar graph example below that trying to compare multiple regions against multiple years is challenging yet in the point graph, the data is concise and easy to interpret.

Choosing a visualization
Business Dashboards – Bar graph
Choosing a visualization
Business Dashboard – Point graph

Destination Dashboard If you are looking for a dashboarding workshop where you can learn about choosing a visualization, Lodestar’s 2-day “Destination Dashboard” workshop, which is offered periodically throughout the year, will cover visualization development in-depth. You will leave the workshop with a physical blueprint, a repeatable process you can teach your organization, and Cognos training on how to build in Cognos Workspace. To learn more about the next Destination Dashboard events, contact us at

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