Operational Excellence

How to Create the Most Compelling Project Dashboard

by Hannah Cohen, June 18, 2019

A project dashboard gives you exceptional insight into your project’s status. Learn how to create your own project management dashboard in this post.

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Do you know exactly how your projects are doing right now? Can you tell which tasks are delayed and which are ahead of schedule? Which of your resources are falling behind?

Unless you have a capable project dashboard, you likely answered ‘no’ to all these questions.

A project dashboard (or any dashboard for that matter) gives you unprecedented visibility into your work. Instead of digging through spreadsheets and submenus, a dashboard helps you track your most important metrics, often in real-time.

The result? Faster decision-making and better insight.

Creating a project dashboard isn’t easy. You have to first identify the right metrics. Then you have to combine them in a way that is accurate, relevant, and easy to understand.

I’ll show you what goes into creating a project dashboard in this guide. You’ll learn about the core ingredients of a successful dashboard, what metrics to use, and how to bring everything together.

What Makes a Good Dashboard?

A dashboard is nothing but a collection of metrics arranged in an easy to grasp, mostly visual manner.

Think of it as a project report, but one that is updated either in real-time or at fixed intervals, automatically.

The chief utility of a dashboard is that it brings in relevant data from multiple sources in a friendly format.

A marketing dashboard, for instance, might bring in traffic data from Google Analytics, social media data from HootSuite, and PPC data from AdSense. You can technically access all this data independently, but it takes too much effort to do it on a regular basis.

A good dashboard - and this applies to everything from project management to marketing - has a few common features:

1. Visual

The hallmark of a good dashboard is its visual friendliness. Data that is otherwise hard to grasp (such as long numerical tables) is converted into easy-to-read graphs and charts. Trends and movements are highlighted via colors and motion.

A common theme, for instance, is using the red color to highlight a drop and the green color for growth. This tells the user at a glance whether a metric is going up or down.

 

 

It’s not enough to be visual, of course; the dashboard should also be scannable. A user should understand trends, differences, and movements at a glance. Simple changes such as using two contrasting colors for two separate quantities can improve scanning drastically.

 

2. Relevance and Customizability

A dashboard that tracks metrics no one cares about is a dashboard that’s not fulfilling its purpose. More than anything, your dashboard must track the right metrics, for the right person, at the right time.

The problem, of course, arises when competing interests get down to defining the “right metrics”.

This is where your homework before you start creating the dashboard becomes crucial. It’s not enough to simply plug together a bunch of APIs in a visual manner; you also have to build consensus among all interested parties.

Essentially, your project dashboard should be relevant to the user. Don’t show the CEO the same metrics as you would show the project manager. Create separate dashboards for different roles.

 

A Gantt chart is a relevant way to display completed and upcoming tasks, but isn’t useful for displaying profit per client.

At the same time, offer them some customization options. If a user wants to look at task completion rate month-over-month instead of daily, give them the option to do so. 

Just be careful to not offer too many customization options - it’ll only lead to confusion.

 

3. Accuracy

It goes without saying that any dashboard you create should be accurate.

Accurate data sources help a great deal in this regard. If you can club the same data from multiple sources (say, getting website traffic data from both Mixpanel and Google Analytics), you can eliminate some of the errors in the measuring source.

More importantly, the dashboard should only read data, not modify it.

 

4. Update frequency

A good dashboard is updated just often enough to be useful. You might be tempted to update every metric in real-time. But unless you’re dealing with a massive volume of rapidly changing data, real-time updates are a waste of resources.

Instead, consider how often the actual data changes. In a project dashboard, resources might log in their hours worked only at the end of the day. Updating this metric every hour is useless. Instead, you can set it to update only once every 24 hours.

At the same time, consider how often the end user will check the dashboard. If the dashboard is to be reviewed only once a month, spending resources on real-time or even daily updates might be a waste.

In other words, your update frequency should match a) the update frequency of the data, and b) the access frequency of the dashboard itself.

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Keeping all these factors in mind, let’s look at the actual process of creating a project dashboard in the next section.

 

Creating a Project Dashboard

The process of creating a project dashboard can be technically challenging. You need data in the right format and the ability to turn it into actionable insight.

However, more than the technical challenges, what hampers most endeavors is a poor understanding of what the dashboard should actually do. A dashboard that shows the wrong data in the wrong format doesn’t help anyone.

Your first step, therefore, should be to figure out exactly what you need and, more importantly, why you need it.

 

5 Things to Consider When Creating a Dashboard

Before you start creating your project dashboard, get clarity on these 5 things:

1. The purpose of the dashboard

Good dashboards are always purpose driven. They measure specific things for specific users. A finance-focused project dashboard will take a very different shape than an operations-focused project dashboard.

Thus, the first two things you need to define are:

  • The target user of the dashboard
  • The intent and purpose of the dashboard (i.e. what it will be used for)

 

2. The data you’re currently tracking

Project dashboards, of course, depend on data. But not all this data is equally useful or usable.

Start by making a catalog of all your data sources. What data are you currently tracking across all your systems? What format is this in? Can you plug it directly into your dashboard system?

Next, make a list of your KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). This should include KPIs specific to that dashboard, as well as KPIs you track for all other parts of the business.

 

3. The dashboard format

When it comes to the dashboard format, you have to answer three questions:

  • Who will access the dashboard? What are their top requirements?
  • How often will they access the dashboard?
  • Where will they access the dashboard

Much depends on the answers to these questions. A dashboard that’s accessed just once a month can be in the form of a static report. One that’s accessed daily should be accessible via a shared URL.

 

Workamajig shows important information such as task/project status in easy to read visual formats

Similarly, if your users don’t need freshly updated data, a static dashboard will do fine. Else, you’ll want to offer them a dynamic dashboard with some customization capabilities.

 

4. Style considerations

Apart from the format, also consider the style of the project dashboard. Think of the target users who will access the dashboard. What level of complexity do they prefer in their graphs? Do they have the technical know-how to read Trellis Plots or should you make do with a simpler bar graph?

 

Trellis plots are great for engineering calculations but you won’t find much use for them on a financial dashboard (Image source: Visme)

Also, consider the colors and themes. Does the dashboard have to follow any corporate colors? Do the target users prefer a certain aesthetic? Are there any accessibility issues you need to worry about?

In general, it’s a good idea to make your dashboards as easy to read as possible. Clarity trumps cleverness in any project dashboard.

 

5. The tools you have access to

Finally, consider the tools you have access to or are comfortable using (which might not always be the same). Excel is the default tool for any kind of statistical endeavor, but creating dynamic dashboards in Excel requires a lot of technical expertise.

A solid project management system like Workamajig can help you create detailed dashboards from the data you already have.

 

Workamajig’s customizable management dashboard shows you how your agency is doing by client, account manager, and service.

In the next section, we’ll look at the actual process of creating a project dashboard.

 

How to Create Your Project Management Dashboard

Unfortunately, there is no clear and direct path to creating a project dashboard. Much depends on how you collect your data (and how you store it) and the tools you have access to. What works for one agency might not work for another.

That said, there are a few general tips and best practices that apply to every project dashboard, regardless of the tools you use:

1. Collect and curate your data

Start by making a catalog of all your data sources. For each source, also identify what format you can export the data in. CSV is the most common format since it can be readily used in Excel, Google Sheets, and other dashboard tools.

 

This screenshot from Google Analytics shows the different formats you can use to export data

Make a list of all the data sources and identify their formats. You might have something like this:

  • Web traffic data - CSV format
  • Financial data - CSV and PDF formats
  • User data - SQL database

Most dashboard tools should let you use data in multiple formats. But if that’s not the case, you’ll want to figure out a way to convert the data and make it compatible with your dashboard tool.

Alternatively, you can use a tool like Workamajig to automatically gather your most important project management data and turn it into a dashboard.

 

2. Identify your top metrics

From each of your data sources, identify your top metrics and their update frequency. The latter is particularly important for figuring out whether you can make do with a static dashboard or if you need a dynamic one.

For instance, project financial data doesn’t change rapidly on a daily basis. But the list of tasks completed can change a lot in a day. A weekly static dashboard that focuses on the latter will be nearly useless. If you want to highlight such metrics, try using a dynamic project dashboard instead.

 

3. Identify the right element and design for each metric

Next, for each of the metrics you identified above, list the right graphical and your chosen design. Again, this will depend on your target users and the format of the metric itself. A list of upcoming to-dos is best represented as, well, a list. Productivity over time is better shown as a line graph.

For each metric, also identify the “must have” design element. For instance, you might want to show first name, task name, and profile picture in your list of upcoming and finished to-dos.

 

The above screenshot shows a sample task list with the owner of each task, the task name, and their profile pictures. (Image Credit: Klipfolio)

 

 

4. Create your dashboard layout

The final step to think of the dashboard layout, i.e. how you will organize the data in the dashboard.

There are a few usability heuristics you should follow:

  • Larger elements draw more attention. Thus, make your most important KPIs the largest elements on the dashboard.
  • People read from left to right and top to bottom. Your most important metric should be in the top left corner, the least important in the bottom right.
  • Use familiar colors (such as red for loss, green for profit) and easy to read fonts to improve legibility

Search Pinterest for dashboards for inspiration. It’s best to borrow established design norms than to reinvent the wheel.

 

The final step - bring all the data together in your dashboard tool. Place the right metric in the right spot in your layout, use the correct design, and you’re ready to share it with your users!

 

While a project dashboard can bring a great deal of visibility and insight into your projects, it can also be hard to create, especially if you have to bring in data from multiple sources. A project management system such as Workamajig not only helps you track vital project data, but also integrates with other tools you already use.

The end result is a powerful and flexible project dashboard that isn’t just easy to create, but also easy to customize.

Try Workamajig for yourself to see how it can transform the way you run your projects.

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About The Author

Hannah Cohen

Hannah C recently joined the Workamajig Marketing Team. She enjoys a healthy lifestyle, loves all things furry and is always looking to learn something new. Send her your best recipe, a picture of your dog or your secret tip for marketing success at hannahc@workamajig.com.

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