When digital dashboards are a bad idea: and how to redesign them for MIS

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Digital dashboard design disasters are a particular gripe of mine.

In my recent post Lawyers, good with words, not so good with numbers? I highlighted the issue of poor digital dashboard design – and how many fail to deliver value to some (or all) of their users.

A good management information system should present useful information in a way that is clear and easy to understand, but many MIS systems fail to deliver on these requirements – why is this? What kind of digital dashboard design is best? And when are digital dashboards just a terrible idea?

Digital dashboard design: style over substance?

Many examples of digital dashboards that I see are designed more for graphical impact and to look pretty than to actually be useful. A simple Google search for digital dashboard images reveals a dizzying array of flashy graphics that are horrendous for actual business analysis: their 3D displays and gauges look more like car dashboards than management information reports.



While gauges may appeal to the petrolheads out there, they are not an efficient way of delivering information. For example, gauges are rarely the most effective way to communicate comparative data .

Much more difficult to find is good advice on creating displays that are actually useful and effective at both communicating business information and encouraging behaviour change (encouraging a fee earner to spend more time on business development activities for example).

As digital marketing evangelist Avinash Kaushik highlights, digital dashboards should be  “thoughtfully processed analysis of data relevant to business goals with an included summary of recommended actions” and not, as he calls it, “a data puke”.

Digital dashboard design: why the end user matters

It is often the finance team that designs law firm reporting systems, yet the recipients of the information are generally lawyers – fee earners and team/department management who need to be able to access, understand and act upon the information presented.

Detailed numerical reports are going to be more difficult to comprehend for less numerate people than simple visual displays illustrating the same information. However, pictures for pictures sake can have the opposite effect, obscuring the important message with unnecessary colour, graphics and “chrome” (*).

How to design digital dashboards that work for everyone

Too many dashboards are too focused on graphical displays. At the right time, simple numbers might be more appropriate. Graphics should enhance and highlight key information, rather than detract from or obscure it.

For a good understanding of the science behind effective data visualisation, I recommend reading authors such as Stephen Few and Edward Tufte.

Few’s ‘Visual business intelligence’ blog has some particularly useful insights on this topic. He talks about the business of good communication of information through better quality dashboard design. Data sensemaking requires time and attention, he writes. “Data sensemaking requires skill augmented by good technologies.” His white papers, Common pitfalls in dashboard design and Dashboard design for real-time situation awareness are also well worth reading.

Positive principles Few advocates include:

  • Encouraging active thinking about the data, not just passive reaction to alarms – dashboards should encourage users to maintain awareness of the current position, rather than simply react to alarms
  • Don’t over-automate actions to the point where people become disengaged – dashboards should handle calculations and repetitive procedural tasks, but should not displace or replace human intelligence
  • Providing a common picture for the whole team – thus providing everyone with the ability to maintain an understanding of context, without being distracted from their day-to-day priorities
  • Supporting projections for proactive responses – dashboards should not only give a snapshot of the “now” but also help users to anticipate future outcomes based on current activity

The principles of market and business intelligence based decision-making mean that law firm strategy decisions should be based on solid supporting data, to increase the chances of business success.  Well-presented management information enables this to happen.

A key place to start when designing a digital dashboard is the decision around what management information should be reported on and displayed – and this depends on your unique business rules and key performance indicators. See my previous post, Creating the best law firm MIS: how to build an effective management information system, for more on this.

SmartEye-HomeOnce the rules have been fixed, then the role of great design comes into play. The importance of design is summarised quite neatly in this review of Stephen Few’s book:

“The most powerful designs are the ones we do not notice. The real power of designers and developers is in turning something incredibly complex into something amazingly simple. The challenge is not to add new features but to add value and power to products without adding any complexity. Design does not happen by accident. It is the product of careful and deliberate planning.

“Businesses that value design will leap ahead because they will able to quickly assimilate information, efficiently focus time and efforts, and create alignment, agility and effectiveness.”

As in many walks of life, the implication of this is that data presentation is becoming the realm of experts – teams who not only have the analytical skills required to process the data, but just as importantly the design and usability expertise to maximise the effectiveness of presentation. In an increasingly tough market with narrowing profit margins, all law firms need to be relentlessly focused on managing their firms as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible. Access to properly focused and effectively presented management information is an essential part of this – and digital dashboards are the gatekeepers.

Are yours working effectively for you and all your colleagues?

If you’d like to discuss how effective digital dashboard design could revolutionise your law firm operations, contact us by email or call 03333 010 766

Blog post by Graham Moore, Managing Director, Katchr


*Chrome is the term used by designers for unnecessary design elements which actually reduce rather than enhance usability – hence the (ironic) name for Google’s stripped back browser.

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