Build Better Software

Context Is Everything

Transform your data into insight using solid design principles.

by Darrell Estabrook

Now that you have a clear sense of purpose for your dashboard, it’s time to start actually building it. We believe that dashboards—like all of our projects—benefit from following solid design principles. Context is one of these key principles.

Data by itself—data out of context—is not very useful.

We’ve seen businesses grapple with this challenge again and again. Someone thinks, “We can’t predict all the questions people want answered. Let’s just give them all the data and a way to slice it themselves.” This is how a lot of dashboards fail, and where context can make all the difference. After all, data in a vacuum can’t help you make better business decisions, and simply turning numbers into a pie chart or bar graph isn’t enough. We use context to make your data more meaningful to your users.

Context is what gives dashboards power. It makes them insightful and actionable. Here’s how:

  • Context expresses an opinion about the data. Dashboard widgets are not meant to be neutral reports: they should give you a glanceable thumbs up or thumbs down.
  • Context answers the user’s questions before the user even asks. You shouldn’t have to navigate away from the dashboard to look at historical data or any other resource to judge progress. Are sales trending up or down? Is recruiting on target?
  • Context lightens the user’s cognitive load. It does some of the thinking for you. A good dashboard doesn’t wait for you to process information and prioritize. Context cuts to the chase. It says, “Pay attention to me! You need to act now.” 

So, in practical terms, how do you do this?

  • Identify who needs the data: An executive and a team manager think differently, and they probably use technology differently, too.
  • Determine the user's decision points: By zeroing in on exactly what information users need to take action, you can focus on what matters without distraction.
  • Survey the data: Identifying data gaps up front will save you time, money and effort and may change the dashboard design.

We also use a number of techniques from the designer’s toolkit, including:

1. Scale: If something is important, we draw attention by making it bigger. If something is less important, its smaller size says, “Focus on me later.”

2. Contrast: Making dashboards colorful or monotone, bright or dim is another way to offer visual clues and attract your attention to what matters now.

3. Positioning: We add context to widgets by placing key metrics front and center, grouping related metrics or isolating summary information from detail information.

4. Hierarchy: Arranging widgets by order of importance, from top-to-bottom or large-to-small, quickly prioritizes information for you.

5. Icons: When terms and concepts are commonly understood, words can be simplified with visual symbols to express the same meaning.

6. Words: Although dashboard text should be minimal, words are useful when understanding a metric is critical. Sometimes there is no substitution for clear labels and titles.

Are you struggling to build effective dashboards in your organization? Check out Dashboards that Deliver, our guide to building smarter business intelligence tools. Or, tell us about your challenge. We’d love to show you how establishing context for data can help you make better business decisions—faster.

Learn more about our Software Development solutions.

Darrell Estabrook
Darrell Estabrook
User Experience Lead
Contact Darrell