If you run or work for a major enterprise, useful data is never in short supply, as an IT Director at a Fortune 500 company may see, analyze, and record enough information in a single day to fill up a phone book or good-sized hard drive. And for so many employees of any large business, doing your job means compiling spreadsheets and data reports from those massive amounts of information your company collects and packaging that data into tidy and useful insights.

It's an unfortunate side-effect of the digital age that more and more human jobs have less to do with executing a gameplan and more to do with measuring it. Those at the executive level don't have time to look through endless reams of data--they need those figures turned into visuals, and those visuals delivered in the context they need to draw quick insights and make smart decisions.

To date, many executives rely primarily on humans to tell them what the data they collect actually means. The dashboards of the future (and some of the great dashboards that already exist) will empower decision makers with actual insights and do away with the need for legions of reporters--allowing employees to focus on more productive activities.

The Shortcomings of Today's Dashboards

Most business dashboards today still fail to provide insights and actionable intelligence. Because its function is to visualize business data and identify trends, any dashboard can summarize and analyze the information executives need to make informed decisions on the direction their company should take. These tools map out the business KPIs that make up the firm's big picture, as well as the progress and failures those at the C-level and on the Board of Directors need to know about.

But without good design, what these dashboards don't do is properly contextualize that data. You can present an executive with plenty of graphs and charts, but if the dashboard doesn't clarify how these visualizations relate to the company's bottom line, he or she will still end up asking, "What does this mean for my business?"

A dashboard shouldn't just display information, but educate the people looking at those displays on what they mean, how to draw hard conclusions from them, and how to make recommendations based on those conclusions. Investing in dashboard design is key to making KPIs immediately understandable and, by extension, driving effective executive decisions.

Visualizing Your Data

The first step towards creating a useful executive dashboard should be converting your data into something intuitively visual. The freedom and customization offered by many analytics platforms end up tempting dashboard designers into crowding their visualizations, including far too many data points, bright colors, and unrelated or vague information for them to be legible. This, of course, defeats the entire purpose of these devices--if your data can't be neatly rolled into a maximum of four pages of displays, you're not properly utilizing the dashboard's capabilities.

Centric Digital's cofounder Brian Manning emphasizes that the smallest details can make the difference between a display that's overwhelming and one that's understandable. One key mistake he says is "not leaving enough white space so that you can zero in on the things you need to see." Color is also often a problem, as choosing bright colors over muted shades can render a display almost daunting to the reader.

The most important aspect of design is to minimize all the noise surrounding the visuals. Manning argues that the problem of too much relevant information can be mediated by a dashboard's drill-down capabilities. "Don't try to get everything down on the first dashboard or on one page," he says. "Design your display so that you can click through levels of detail rather than having it all present at once."

Putting Your Visuals in Context

The first step towards creating a useful executive dashboard should be converting your data into something intuitively visual. The freedom and customization offered by many analytics platforms end up tempting dashboard designers into crowding their visualizations, including far too many data points, bright colors, and unrelated or vague information for them to be legible. This, of course, defeats the entire purpose of these devices--if your data can't be neatly rolled into a maximum of four pages of displays, you're not properly utilizing the dashboard's capabilities.

Centric Digital's cofounder Brian Manning emphasizes that the smallest details can make the difference between a display that's overwhelming and one that's understandable. One key mistake he says is "not leaving enough white space so that you can zero in on the things you need to see." Color is also often a problem, as choosing bright colors over muted shades can render a display almost daunting to the reader.

The most important aspect of design is to minimize all the noise surrounding the visuals. Brian argues that the problem of too much relevant information can be mediated by a dashboard's drill-down capabilities. "Don't try to get everything down on the first dashboard or on one page," he says. "Design your display so that you can click through levels of detail rather than having it all present at once."

Using Context to Produce Insights

Context is extremely important--it will help you and your audience to draw necessary conclusions faster and with more accuracy relative to the business(es) you run. How can you determine what the right context is that your dashboards should display?

The problem is, most of us don't know the context our business needs from the outset. These dashboards should give it to you in plain language and simple displays, demonstrating how exactly the information you're looking at could inform decisions that make the company more efficient.

Think about trends that are impacting your industry and whether your company is ahead of or behind that trend. If the business equipment you're using doesn't tell you anything about that, what is it good for? The data your dashboard is showing you ought to intuitively lead you to precisely the right context--if the company hasn't used this data to change its habits within a few weeks, your equipment isn't doing its job.

In the end, a dashboard should be giving you and your fellow executives exactly what you want from it: the ability to identify the right decision quickly and easily without having to look at tons of data. After all, if you wanted to grapple with endless rows of statistics, you'd still be relying on outdated spreadsheets and not investing in business data visualization in the first place.

Getting a fundamental understanding of the factors influencing your business won't just make your job easier--it will enable you to make better decisions and engender new levels of efficiency for your business.