Over the last three years, I’ve been building Google Data Studio dashboards for everyone from Fortune 500 companies to startups and investment firms.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that most dashboards follow a fairly predictable pattern. And that pattern has been overwhelmingly well-received by my clients.
I’m going to break it down step-by-step for you here, in the hopes that it can speed up the process of building your own dashboards.
Navigate this post:
- Step 1: Choose three top-level KPI categories
- Step 2: Add contextual visualizations
- Step 3: Add a deep dive table
- Step 4: Use a custom color palette
- Step 5: Use a logo
- Step 6: Use a grid and card layout for organization
Information design: which metrics to use and where to put them
Step 1: Choose three top-level KPI categories
We start every single project at Cottrell Consulting by learning as much as possible about the person who is going to use our dashboard. It’s tough to choose your KPIs if you don’t have a deep understanding of your user.
A few questions I like to start with are:
- What is my user’s job? What is their level of proficiency?
- What decision or process is this dashboard supposed to improve for them?
- How familiar are they with good data practices? Will this person know the difference between correlation and causation?
- Will this tool make their job easier or harder? What part of their job could this dashboard improve?
- What (if any) expectations do they have about this dashboard?
- How much time do they spend on the part of their job related to my dashboard? Does this dashboard actually matter to them or is it just another tool that they have to learn to use?
Once we have a better sense of who is going to be using our dashboard we can start to figure out what data to include.
- Start by trying to describe what you’re building for your client in 2–5 words.
- Then try describing it in a full sentence.
- Then describe it in 2–3 sentences.
- If necessary, keep going until you have as many sentences as you need to fully explain what you’re building.
You’re building a narrative pyramid that represents the hierarchy of your data.
Ask yourself, what are the top three categories of metrics at the first or second level of the pyramid?
Of those three categories, which three metrics best illustrate the insights you want from that category? Can you use less than three metrics?
That’s going to be what we use for the top section of our dashboard.
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Step 2: Add contextual visualizations
Once you have your three KPI categories and three (or fewer) KPIs per category, we’re going to add contextual visualizations.
80+% of the time the best approach is going to be a line chart plotting one of your KPIs over time.
These will go directly beneath each of your KPI categories. I typically stick to one per category, but if multiple metrics in the category are related you could plot both of them in the same chart.
This stage is also when you want to consider any other supplemental visualizations you might want on the page. In this case, I knew I wanted to include time of day and I wanted to compare the ratio of impressions to conversions.
Note: you don’t need supplemental visualizations. This is just to help anyone that gets a specific request to include a visualization that doesn’t fit into this standard recipe.
We’ll get into the layout and colors later, but I just start by getting the data onto the page. Don’t sweat the style yet.
Step 3: Deep dive
The last set of data we want to include is a table summarizing the data and segmenting it by whatever dimension is most useful. In this case, I wanted to know which campaign is performing best, so I used campaign as my dimension. You can just use your existing KPIs or any other metric you think would be valuable to include.
In my example, the table is in the corner of the page, but it can take up the entire bottom section of your report if you want to emphasize the data. Here’s another example of a more prominent table:
The table lets you go deeper and see performance on a more granular level. For example, total impressions are a useful insight, but I probably want to know which ad campaign they came from. Total sessions might be useful, but I probably want to know who referred the users from those sessions.
Tips for building engaging tables:
- Try out the heatmap feature, which you can find in the table data settings.
- Use a comparison period to see if your metric is trending up or down. This is also in the table data settings.
- Try adding a scorecard above each metric to show the totals. In my example above, I color-coded each scorecard to match the metric in the table beneath it.
So to recap you now have:
- Three KPI categories
- Three (or fewer) metrics for each KPI category
- Three time series charts: one for each KPI category
- One table
That’s all the data you need. And now, it’s time to make it look great!
Styling: don’t just make it actionable, make it pretty!
Step 4: Use a custom color palette
The best style tip I can give you is to match your color palette to your client or user. If you’re building for Coca Cola, use the signature red and white. If it’s for Facebook try out the signature Facebook blue.
If you have a design background then you should know how to come up with a color palette. If you don’t have a design background then I highly suggest copying one from an existing dashboard.
If you’re doing a red/white dashboard then google “red white dashboard” and find an example you like (or check out the Data Studio template gallery). Then use a color picker tool (on Mac it’s called “Digital Color Meter”) to copy the hex values and set them in your own dashboard. I promise no designer will be offended by you copying their color palette.
Step 5: Use a logo
Integrating a logo makes your dashboard feel more custom. Data Studio can feel generic, so you want to do everything you can to make it feel unique and customized to your user.
If you add a logo and a custom color palette, your clients will feel like you’ve built something that’s tailored to them.
Step 6: Use a grid and card layout for organization
Start with a header bar: this where you’ll put your logo (on the left) and your filter/date selector (on the right).
Then, give a unique background color for your top level KPI categories. In my example, it’s dark grey. In your dashboard, it could be a color that matches your company’s or client’s branding.
- Organize your top level KPIs as if there are three equal sized imaginary rectangles around them with a bit of spacing in between.
- Make sure there is equal empty space on all four sides of each imaginary rectangle (we call this padding).
- Make sure there is slightly more space between each of your three categories than there is between the metrics inside each category because we want to visually reinforce that these are different categories.
- Give each section a clear title along with any supplemental information beneath it. The title should have a larger font size than the supplemental information.
For the rest of your page, put each metric/visual into a rectangle with 10px rounded edges. Organize these rectangles and align them.
Try to keep these rectangles the same height/width and if you need more/less room, try to double the width or halve it — you’re essentially trying to keep everything in an imaginary grid layout.
The easiest way to keep this section clean and organized is to use the alignment tools in the “Arrange” menu at the top of the page.
If you hold shift and click multiple rectangles you can then align them vertically or horizontally using this menu. You can also distribute them so they are evenly spaced.
You can use the “Order” menu to make your rectangles sit behind your charts and scorecards. You should think about the elements on your page as transparent layers.
To make sure everything sits in the right order, you’ll need to bring some elements forward and set some elements further back. You can “bring to back” or “bring to front” using the “Order” section to make a rectangle sit beneath or above all the other elements on the page.
It’s important to take the time to make sure everything on your page is aligned as consistently as possible. People subconsciously notice the smallest misalignments on a page and it has a huge impact on how credible the data feels. Every element should be aligned with a different element.
My mantra is AAEA: Always Align Everything Always. The extra Always is so that you don’t forget!
At this point, you should have a pretty nice looking page that is customized, includes useful metrics and allows your users to get a 40,000-foot view and a deep dive into their data. I’m going to add a couple extras that can help you jazz things up even more.
Step 7: Add a map
If you’re marketing in multiple different regions or globally, it’s probably worthwhile to add a geo chart. You might have noticed the map in my sample dashboard. Maps don’t always provide the most actionable data… but they get engagement.
I don’t know the psychology behind it but when I compare my dashboards with geo charts to those without them, the dashboards that include a geo chart get an average of 50-60% more engagement. People really like them, they look cool, and they get people to use the other more actionable insights on the page.
Step 8: Add chart filters
An easy way to quickly expand the functionality of your dashboard is to add chart filters. At the bottom of the “Data” menu for a selected chart (right side of the page where you choose your metrics/dimensions), there’s a little checkbox:
Selecting it allows you to click on your chart and have it filter the other elements on the page according to your selection.
It’s the fastest/easiest way to drastically expand the functionality of your dashboard. Try it out!
Step 9: Use images/gifs
Not feeling fancy enough? Add a gif or image. I like finding images and gifs with transparent backgrounds to integrate into the page.
Is your dashboard about climate or macroeconomics? Throw in a cool spinning globe gif.
Want to make your page look more like a website? Add a background image and try lowering the opacity of your background shapes so it shows through a little bit:
You can treat your page like a PowerPoint slide. Data Studio has almost all the same design features. Use images, use shapes, use gradients and transparency. There is a ton of room for creativity.
Over to you
That’s all for now! Thanks for tuning in and I hope this dashboard recipe helps you build something amazing of your own. Dashboards are equal parts data and design, so let yourself be creative and make something cool!
About the author
Josh Cottrell has been building data-focused products since 2014. He has had the opportunity to work with some of the world’s leading brands including Google, Apple, Lego, Gatorade, Microsoft and Philips. His competitive intelligence startup — MarketSpace — was acquired in 2014 and since then he has been helping his clients build actionable and visually stunning performance dashboards at Cottrell Consulting.