Jasmin Ritchie - Feb 8, 2016

How Creating Dashboards is Like Opening Christmas Gifts

When I get the opportunity to develop visualizations for a client, I feel it's a little like Christmas. A present has been handed to me.

With Christmas gifts, everyone has different ways of figuring out how to open them, determine what's inside, and what to do with them. Similarly, everyone has different ways of building visualizations.

Most of the time when I am building visualizations, I am given data and questions that the client wants answered. Much of the time, these include things like how many registrants they have, or what their membership retention rate is. Other times, I want to find the story the data is telling me.

Usually, I both answer the client's questions and provide a story. Here is my general process, blending creative and analytical skills.
Tabluau data calculations

  1. Explore dimensions and measures.
    • First, I need to figure out what the data is about. I usually start with just one dimension, such as a date field or location, and one measure, such as sales or person count.
    • I keep the chart types simple -- line graphs and bar charts.
    • I can get lost exploring sometimes, so I like to time box this step. Just like brainstorming, I find that I get diminishing returns as time goes on.
    • I do not delete anything. The chart might be ugly or might not seem interesting by itself, but it may prove helpful later.
  2. Look for possible relationships.
    • I start pulling in multiple dimensions. This is where I love to use Tableau’s "Show Me" feature. I’m not looking to win style points here; I’m still just exploring. The "Show Me" feature allows me to very quickly (as in seconds) explore all the dimensions. Association data usually has a lot of dimensions: Age, gender, area of interest, individual type, organization type, member type, certifications.
    • With most of these baseline visualizations, I don’t see an interesting story. By exploring and asking more questions, however, I usually find something that peaks my interest.
    • Again, I keep most of my work and move to the next step.
  3. Put it all together.
    • Now that I have a pretty good feel for my data and relationships, I start pulling them together on a dashboard. Because I did a lot of high-level exploring in the first two steps, now I feel like establishing a guide of what I want to convey helps me focus. I use my experience, knowledge of visualization and dashboard best practices and Tableau knowledge. Sometimes I go to the Tableau Public gallery for inspiration.
    • I do things like add dashboard actions, create calculated fields, modify chart types, establish dashboard layout, change colors, edit font styles, and tweak tooltips. This is the step that takes the most time, but is also the most rewarding because it makes the story come to life.
    • I remind myself of the value each tweak is adding and am also aware that some of my work will change. For example, font styles and tooltips can really add polish to your dashboard, but it doesn’t make sense to spend a lot of time on them if they might change in the next iteration.
  4. Phone a friend and iterate.
    • I love getting feedback from my colleagues and clients. Feedback can include comments about what may be confusing, what takes too much time to understand, color choices, or possible other effective chart types. Not everyone will agree on what makes the best visualizations, and I don’t take action on all of the suggestions, but I end up with better results when I get feedback.
  5. Avoid tweak-itis.
    • Because I am so detail oriented, I can get stuck in the weeds. I can modify fonts and tooltips all day or develop numerous calculated fields to make something look just right. With each tweak, I have to consider the value it brings.

Written by Jasmin Ritchie