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The 8Ws of Dashboard Design


Regardless of whether mandated by organizational policies or regulations, or propelled by professional or societal trends, what appears on a dashboard is driven by the same underlying principles:

  1. “What role?”

  2. “What to push?”

  3. “What to pull?”

  4. “What is prior?”

  5. “What is visual?”

  6. “What placement?”

  7. “What’s related?” and

  8. “What’s optional?”

These represent the “8Ws” of dashboard design. Each principle is used in the form of one or more questions the dashboard should answer in its operational design.


W1: What role?

The first W prompt reminds us where we should start in our dashboard design thinking –

the purpose of the dashboard.

  • Who is the dashboard going to help?

This question provides us with critical operational context, such as -

  • what role the person is performing and

  • what common activities the role is responsible for completing.

Another key question is - what questions must the dashboard help answer?


W2: What to push?

The second W addresses the critical information that systems should “push” to the dashboard, and with what cadence. This might include mandated items such as organizational policies, regulatory compliance, or perhaps service level commitments. Some of the key questions the dashboard answers could include:

  • What mandates are in play, and to what extent is anything at risk, or introduces risk?

  • How far are we from a decision point?

  • Has anything breached or failed, and where to navigate to next to take corrective action?

  • Any announcement-worthy information, such as the key status of something?

  • Any alert-worthy information indicating, or information of an exception?

A speedometer is a good example of this type of dashboard information. It’s also required and regulated on a motorized vehicle. It’s the law. From a work perspective, we may have software applications occasionally inspected by government agency auditors, or contracts for services.. we need to police in real-time.


W3: What to pull?

Another of our 8Ws reminds us we may need to consider key information a person can request, or “pull” from a data source. This type of information is solicited on demand, current, generated in real-time, and may be pulled because of information already presented (such as in W2), and like all information, subject to role-based policies and rules that govern disclosure and use.


W4: What is prior?

The fourth W is for historical information. This type of information is typically used for planning purposes but can be used to detect a trend, perhaps as part of identifying a risk, or a problem. Sometimes the entire dashboard is reserved for historical reporting. What historical information, if any, should be readily accessible to support real-time dashboard information?


W5: What visual?

The fifth W helps us decide how best to present the information, making sure it’s easily found, read, and understood. What format works best for the audience? A widget determines how data is presented on dashboards. Many variations are possible.

For example, as a chart (line, area, bar, pie, doughnut, funnel), card (single or multiple counters), gauges, maps, scatter or bubble charts, tables, heat maps, or plain lists.


W6: What placement?

Where should the widget containing the information be placed?

Research has shown there are several ways or “patterns” a viewer’s eye moves across a website or dashboard design. They include “Z” and “F” patterns, long associated with the natural path the eye will take through any design based upon how we have been taught to read.


There’s plenty of help on the web on how to organize content in general, to follow natural eye movements (“visual hierarchy”). Remember, position content based upon the priorities of the viewer.


W7: What’s related?

Is any information managed and presented by other dashboards? The seventh W reminds us to check and relate or link dashboards, perhaps in a layered design, allowing the viewer to jump to, or “zoom down” to, other dashboards.


W8: What’s optional?

Finally, given the constrained space a dashboard typically offers, we need to consider what information is a must, and what’s optional. It’s important to note that optional information implies that which a viewer can re-configure, perhaps suppress, or move to another place within the dashboard without impacting or changing the priority and placement of information that is required. This is our eighth and final W principle.


The most useful and valuable dashboards are designed around a role, or a persona, and appreciate the key activities, questions, and decision points important to the role. Their layout is intuitive. Information is presented and layered to avoid information overload and supports natural reading methods. The user experience is also mindful of the infamous “four-second rule” – namely, if my eyes can’t orientate and find something within that time it’s a sure sign there’s a mismatch between my knowledge of the role and the dashboard design for the same role.


Take moment. Look around you now and during the rest of your day today. How many dashboards will you use? Which ones work instinctively, and which ones don’t, and why. How many seem to follow some or all the “8W” principles? Just to think, it all started with a simple plank of wood.


This article was originally published on IT Toolbox.


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