10 Tips for Building Useable and Useful Data Visualizations and Dashboards

When built and deployed correctly, dashboards not only provide consumable data; they can also be the gateway to meaningful clinical and business insights. It sounds easy enough, but we all know the reality of actually executing these steps isn’t always so simple.

Like our little comic colleague, Dilbert, we can become buried in the requirements of a project and lose sight of the end goal. Here are a few tips to help your next project succeed through data visualization and dashboards.

1. Clearly define the question.

This may seem like the most obvious step, but we often spend very little time ensuring the overall goal is clear. I am sure you can recall a time when the requirements seemed so simple: you built a fabulous dashboard, only find out the intent was something completely different, and you had to scrap it and start over. Setting a clear direction and documenting the end goal, at the beginning, will put you on the right track and help minimize rework.

2. Don’t be afraid to challenge the idea.

Even with a clearly defined goal, it always helps to dig a little deeper:

• What exactly do your stakeholders want to see?

• How will they use the data?

• What decisions will they make?

• Will the currently scoped deliverable achieve their goal?

By asking the right questions, you are more likely to discover and prevent potential areas of dissatisfaction before you build something exactly as requested, only to discover that the requirements did not match the needs.

3. Always complete an assessment of existing visualizations and dashboards.

Building dashboards from scratch can be a huge undertaking. Make sure you take the time to review existing assets for similar elements. Finding reusable items can save you hours or even days of work.

4. Know your audience.

Every user will look at the data differently and not everyone needs, or even wants, to see all the details. If in your assessment you find that multiple users will need access to similar data, consider making user or group-specific views; or, if and when possible, build drill-down options directly into the dashboard.

5. Don't make assumptions.

This relates back to item number one. Don’t make assumptions and always clarify questions that arise as you execute your project. Even if you have a clear picture of the goal, your assumptions may be wrong. By documenting and verifying assumptions with your stakeholders before moving on, you will be using your time wisely and likely saving yourself a few headaches along the way.

6. Ensure your work will be useable on the intended viewing device.

Simple enough, but easily forgotten. People will use different devices, even if the initial requirement was to support a standard laptop view. Ask yourself: Will anyone need mobile access? Will it be projected it on a big screen? If so, follow through and ensure your work will look good on all the intended devices.

7. Less is more.

In other words, simpler is always better.

• Use as few data elements as possible.

• Keep color use to a minimum. There is no set rule here, but use color to highlight your point, not just because you can.

• Truncate data - often the point can get lost in the numbers. For example: Revenue of $45,345,356 looks much better displayed as Revenue: $45M.

8. Avoid acronyms.

Having everyone understand the dashboard is more important than the bit of space you will save with acronyms. Of course, you cannot avoid it 100% of the time, but use acronyms sparingly and only if you are positive the end-user knows exactly what you mean. Similarly, you should always make sure the content is familiar to the user. Do not use jargon or labels that are not within the user’s scope of practice.

9. Ensure your dashboard is viewable in other sharing tools

We all dream of a world of real-time accessible data, but in reality, many of our beautifully designed dashboards end up as screenshots in a presentation. If indeed this is part of the use case, take the time to provide templates or workflow steps that will ensure the visualization remains clear.

10. Don't forget to follow up.

Lastly, always follow up. It is easy to move on to the next project without looking back, but checking in both shortly after publishing, and then, as needed will help maximize the data, but more importantly, that the end-users find the data relevant and insightful.


No doubt, there are many more steps to the process, but if you follow even just a few of these tips, you will be on your way to delivering data that is truly both usable and useful. Happy reporting!


How do you apply best practices to your dashboard/reporting projects?


Want to learn more about data visualization and dashboards? Check out these HIMSS resources:

Healthcare Data: You Have to See It to Understand It (webinar)

Visualizing Health Data: Finding Signals in the Noise (webinar)

Bridging the Healthcare Data Divide with Visual Analytics for Better Patient Outcomes (webinar)

Just LOOK At IT! LEAN Visual Systems in Healthcare IT (webinar)

Big Data and visualization 101: Saving money, saving lives (resource)

Bibliometrics: Visualizing the Impact of Nursing Research (resource)

7 Ways to Maximize the Value Data Visualization in Dashboards (tool)


Join the HIMSS C&BI Community today to stay up to date and learn more about the tools and educational opportunities focused on data visualizations and dashboards, and other critical topics that will help you on your journey to Turn Data to Action. #PutData2Work

Data; Visualization; Dashboard; Clinical & Business Intelligence; HIMSS