What Makes a Great Dashboard? The “Quirky Truth” About Churn

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what-makes-a-great-dashboardI was writing an article about what the best dashboards have in common, and then something nearly happened. I nearly bought a new planner. It often surprises people that I use paper at all, since I’m so integrated into the web ecosystem of tools that I use and since I design online tools, but I see my planner as a “wireframe” for my days.

And given that the system I use is completely flexible, customizable and 100% reusable, my near impulse revealed a “quirky truth” about users that applies to digital products as well. Actually, two quirky truths.

So I’m going to talk about what makes a great dashboard and I’m not going to mention NoSQL or “material design” or UX anywhere. Instead, I’m going to focus on how to make a product that prevents users jumping ship to a newer, shinier product in the future.


  1. Narrowing down your audience. You can’t make an intuitive product for all types of users with all types of needs, but by embracing a narrower type of user, you can make something that caters to their needs perfectly. You may have some doubts about this now, but you’ll come around.
  2. Get to know your audience inside out. How old are they? Is there a geographical location they are mostly in? What kind of education or backgrounds do they have? How do their mornings begin? When they open their emails the most? When they are most likely to start a project that would need your software? or if they already are using a similar tool, what motivates them to change tools? Outside of their objectives for your product, what kind of apps, programs and hardware do they use? Do they drive? Cycle? What do they do for recreation? What motivates them? What discourages them?

    Everything from the app functionality they need all the way down to the language you use in the app and it’s integrations, marketing and email timing will depend on this information. This is where putting together some user personas can help.  Get my free persona template in google doc format.

Let’s consider what kinds of data different types of users would expect in a fitness app:

A person who’s just beginning to get fit will track their journey towards fitness differently to a runner who’s training for a half-marathon. We can imagine a former couch potato will do more workouts indoors and may not have many exercises they want to share publicly yet, since they’re not “braggable”. They may care more about logging how they feel (breathless, good, energised) after a workout, and progress could be tracked by measuring interval times if they are jogging, or maybe something like working out three times a week and staying within their aerobic heart rate range, or increases in weights and reps. Seasoned runners will want to show off their routes, and distance, speed and cadence of their run and maybe photos of their location, and they way they feel after a run will probably be on a different scale.

  1. Take a new path to reach the end-goal: with your user persona sheets, you can now decide your product objectives are and how it will achieve that. This may not be the literal objectives as reported by your demographic during your research. Remember the Henry Ford quote: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

 This is where having an off-the-wall approach can make big impact. A product that does the same thing as another product is will inevitably compete on price, functions (which is price charged to you if the cost of two products are the same) and look and feel, and you wind up with circular debates online about which one is better, but a product that helps you get to the same end goal in a very different way will stand out and be worth experimenting with.Examples of stand-out products:

  • There are a dozen journaling, mood logging and gratitude apps out there. Pacifica focuses on managing anxiety by analysing your text entries for “thinking traps”.
  • There are a dozen recipe sharing ecosystems out there. Yummly indexes the entire blogosphere for recipes and displays trending recipes as tiled images for visual inspiration.
  • There are a dozen learn-to-run and running apps out there. Zombies, Run makes the process as entertaining and varied as following a tv series.
  1. They make success instantly recognisable. This is the part where we decide what our users want to see on their dashboard. This doesn’t have to be a hit and miss process. I’ve put together a Product Research Survey Template you can copy to google drive, customise, and use with your focus group. With the persona sheets and feedback from the user research survey, you can ask yourself:
      • What does success look like to this person? Not in a metric sense; in real life. Yes, this is subjective and opinionated. Not everyone will agree. Some people won’t use your product of it, but like I said in point 1, you can’t make a simple, intuitive app, SAAS or other digital product that appeals to everyone and also retains complete flexibility for all types of users. On the other hand, there are so many people who use products they complain about for not matching their situation, aims or skill level – until they find the one that does. You’d be better off targeting and keeping that loyal slice of users over the long-haul, than casting a wide net every so many months.
      • What would let this person know are successful or getting closer to success?
      • Do they need instructing or encouraging? Or just information? The good thing about picking a demographic is that it’s not too big a niche to make assumptions or set targets for.
      • Are there any red flags that can help someone turn things around if something isn’t moving in the right way? Is this helpful, or more likely to be annoying to this person? Getting an alert that your e-commerce is way down is tolerable to a small business owner if they only get notifications a when a serious dip occurs (maybe over Christmas, perhaps), but if they’re not getting a lot of consistent traffic in the first place, they could be getting alerts all the time.


  2.  Kill their distractionsmaxresdefaultWhat is distracting your users from their aims in using this app? Not within your product. In general.

There are lots of features I like about Balsamiq mockups, but the two that made me buy way before my trial ended are the “play background music” and “what’s for dinner?” features. Yes, those are real items in their menu bar, because the need for get-in-the-zone calm and the need to not break my attention span to hunt for dinner inspiration allow me to get work done faster.music The music is even set to 25 minute cycles so I can use it as part of my pomodoro cycle.  Instant. Brand. Loyalty. 

A different example is Fitbit’s “Active hours” feature, where users have the option to enable being encouraged to take a given number of steps each hour within normal working hours, for all those desk-bound individuals who get to the end of week feeling like this daily 10k step target thing isn’t workable.  

Another is Freeagent’s weekly ‘Monday Motivator’ email, whose primary purpose is to subtly remind their users to log-in and update their books/send their invoices each week so they’ll get their money’s worth out of the product, and keep subscribing.

The first quirky truth is that although it takes less time and energy to learn to use or set a reminder to use an existing tool, most people will prefer to jump ship to a new tool once they’ve identified that their goals aren’t being fully met with one they already have- even if their obstacle is forgetting to use it. I had nearly bought a new planner not because it did anything different, or looked substantially cuter but because:

  1. The “newness” promised to make actually using it less boring- for a while.
  2. The manufacturer wasn’t afraid to show an opinion: its’ pre-filled inserts closely matched the custom ones I already use. At best, this only saves me 10 minutes a month of opening my insert file and printing, plus color ink, but the boldness of their identity appealed to an irrational part of me that felt chosen at the expense of a more general audience.

The second quirky truth is that using a product is a relationship, and it can be infatuating to find a product that “just gets you” and has eyes for only your demographic. You need to appeal to an irrational, deep-set part of people’s psyche to get the kind of brand loyalty you see in iOS fans, for example.

What creates a great product that inspires customer loyalty is more than a products features, technology, look and feel, marketing and even service desk.

It’s deeply understanding your chosen users, their head space and making it fast and easy (and yes, attractive) to get what they want while obliterating their obstacles to getting there.  

To make truly amazing dashboard, we need to see ourselves as a life coach and motivator with a magic mirror to our users, not just present them with prettier graphs and higher tech tools.


2 responses to “What Makes a Great Dashboard? The “Quirky Truth” About Churn”

  1. […] I’ve said before in “The Quirky Truth About Churn“, software designers and product owners need to think outside of our apps functionality to […]

  2. […] I said in the Quirky Truth About Churn , you need to choose your audience early, narrowly and really get inside their heads in order to […]

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