CRM Dashboard Design Best Practices
- The two most common mistakes with CRM software dashboards are designing for a broad audience and inserting visual clutter.
- Good CRM dashboards deliver at a glance previews of the most useful customer and business performance information.
- Great dashboards deliver fact-based insights that answer key questions, help people make better decisions and induce action to lift performance.
We have been designing and refining Customer Relationship Management software dashboards for more than two decades. Here are some of the CRM dashboard design best practices we've learned along our journey.
Design Dashboards by Persona
CRM analytics need to be designed for specific audiences. Taking a one size fits all approach will marginalize information and fail to gain user adoption. Instead, experienced CRM consultants and graphic designers focus on goal-centric design for personas.
For each role they identify the most important performance objectives or problems to be solved, what evidence is needed to support decisions, and what actions people should take. Designers know that their goal is to deliver insights backed with evidence that induce people to act.
Failing to understand the specific insights needed for each persona causes inexperienced designers to overcompensate by serving too much information and creating visual clutter. That misses the mark to deliver a clean presentation and transition voluminous data into insights that are easy to consume and act upon.
Display the Right Metrics
The best dashboards display the fewest key performance indicators (KPIs). Experienced CRM consultants understand user cognitive behaviors and know that the human brain can only comprehend up to 5 data points at a time. They separate the vital from the inessential and display the highest impact performance measures that are most likely to induce action. They know that information only resonates when it focuses a user's attention to what the user believes is most critical.
A challenge with metrics is that many of the most essential performance measures are not available in packaged CRM software. For example, essential customer measures such as Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) or customer satisfaction (CSAT), or sales measures such as lead leakage or win rate, or marketing measures such as attribution or Return on Marketing Investment (ROMI) are not out of the box KPIs with most CRM software systems. Designers will need to work with CRM developers to create these metrics.
Finally, metrics deliver greater understanding when they include relative values or comparison points. No business operates in a vacuum. Businesses compete. When you outperform competitors, you gain market share. When you underperform, you lose market share. Knowing where you stand relative to top competitors is essential for business growth.
Executive dashboards should display KPIs alongside industry benchmarks for relative comparison.
Operational dashboards should display user performance measures alongside standards, such as quota, budget or prior year results.
A few other CRM dashboard best practices include the following:
- Identify metrics that display not just current period data but highlight patterns and anomalies.
- Some metrics are most helpful when they show information at a point in time and can compare data across periods (i.e., show me how this measure has changed since a prior date.)
- Metrics that don't induce action or change behavior should be discarded and replaced.
Use Smart Visualization
Data visualization applies pictorial or graphical images to communicate quantitative content in a simple way that causes engagement. It makes complex data simple, reduces large data to crucial insights, reveals additional data only when needed and answers important questions.
A best practice is to design dashboards for the 6 second rule.
A dashboard has 6 seconds to engage the user. That's the average attention span to capture and hold the user's attention, and the elapsed time for a user to accept and reflect on the data or move on with business as usual. By comparison, that's less time than a successful bull ride (which is 8 seconds.)
The next CRM dashboard design best practice is to begin with a design architecture. Dashboard architectures use data hierarchies (aka data models) and page navigation techniques. Data hierarchies create linear relationships between CRM entities (i.e. accounts, contacts, activities, opportunities, cases, campaigns, etc.) and related transactions so that users can drill down and help themselves to more information as needed.
Logical content placement aids consistency and user engagement. Users scan content looking for keywords or information of interest. Page navigation constructs such as the F and Z outlines align content placement with eye scanning patterns.
The F pattern is the readers path of first scanning horizontal lines across the top of the screen and then navigating down the left side of the page. Where the F pattern is best used with text and data heavy dashboards, the Z pattern is a better choice for highly graphical and minimalist dashboards. With the Z pattern, the user navigates left to right and then left and down at the same time. When done right, the Z pattern leads the user along a downward hierarchy that builds momentum and culminates in a call-to-action.
Another dashboard design best practice is to apply user-centered design (UCD), which makes the user, not the data, the focus of all design. UCD uses data to visually communicate, tell a story and highlight an action. It applies function ahead of design, presents data within the context of the user's workflow, advances information into insights, flags data for special attention, supplements data with context to aid interpretation, appends data with recommendations or next best actions, and aims to solve specific user problems.
User Centered Design is built on the concept of simplicity. In the wise words of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, "Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
Additional dashboard visualization best practices include the following.
- Use minimalist designs. This means plenty of white space, no more than 5 to 7 data panels and effective use of color coding and other callouts for information highlights.
- White space, also known as negative space, is particularly influential when used on the margins of key information. Many CRM designers double the use of white space around the most important insights to create balance and accelerate focus.
- Minimalist designs reduce clutter and display one or few things at a time. Progressive disclosure is the technique to enable information discovery such as drill-down or animation. Dashboard animation creates the illusion of motion.
- Flat designs are proven to work better than 3-D.
- Color plays a role. Bright colors draw user attention to the most important points, gray or soft colors are best used to display baseline data and maximum contrast creates focus.
- Salesforce did a CRM dashboard design color study to understand how color impacts user first impression, preference and value. They measured response time and accuracy for decisions made with charts delivered in different color themes. The result was that CRM users generally preferred a light rather than dark theme. They viewed the lighter themes as having higher value. As a result of the feedback, Salesforce changed their screens to light themes by default.
Examples of light and dark themes. Image source: Salesforce
- Once you've got the KPIs in a dashboard view, you can then mature the view with color coding thresholds (such as green, yellow and red), visual icons (such as up and down arrows to indicate trend) and the use of images, charts or graphs to supplement the data visualization. When using color coded data, remember that 7% of men are color blind, so applying unique shapes for each color adds another dimension.
- Even the order in which data is displayed, the color palettes used, and the size of various elements of a chart (like expanding a chart beyond its panel border) will highlight salient data and help users interpret information more quickly.
- Frame proportions deliver implied importance so make all frames a uniform size unless certain information is more essential.
- More subtle design rules include adding titles and legends to all charts and naming the axes on graphs. When one of the chart dimensions is for time it should always be the X axis, as time flows from left to right.
And of course, there's a few things not to do. Avoid data puke (excessive data) and limit scrolling dashboards. The information below the fold fails to get discovered. Summary data and data prioritization are the resolutions to data that doesn't fit on a single page. The data architecture should present the most important information first and enable navigational access to supporting or secondary metrics.
Convert Data Into Action
Dashboards excel when they deliver the most important role-based content and induce follow-through by linking the content to recommended actions such as Playbooks, links, workflows and alerts.
Additional methods to make data actionable include the following:
- Drive decision making down to the lowest levels, closest to the source of information, action and responsibility.
- Design for user workflow. Most views surface statistics that make data visible but not actionable. By identifying role based KPIs, prioritizing the output and linking to recommendations or next best actions, it changes the information from being merely interesting to stressing what needs to be done first, then next, and so on.
- Use push rather than pull-based information reporting. For example, allow users to subscribe to the types of information they want to receive. Configure the CRM software to distribute notification alerts based on triggers and automatic distribution of exception reports based on threshold values.
- Data must be easily accessible. Most dashboards to a reasonable job on mobile devices, but don’t enable natural language processing (NLP), which is one of the most requested information accessibility options. Also, dashboards should permit printing or the distribution of views or PDFs to users without access to the system. When dashboards can be inserted into enterprise social networks such as Salesforce Slack and Microsoft Teams, they promote collaboration and knowledge sharing.
- Follow-through counts big time. Sales leaders know they get what they inspect, not what they expect. Performance metrics must be periodically reviewed to verify they are working and being acted upon. When negative variances exist managers must see that remediation plans are created and executed.
- It's a challenge to use historical data to induce future action. The most powerful presentations are those that capture enough data to permit What-If scenarios and pro forma modeling. Predictive analytics shift from information hindsight to foresight. For Salesforce users, Tableau is the best modeling tool. For Microsoft Dynamics CRM users, Power BI is the best tool. For others, unless you have a data warehouse, Excel may be the best modeling tool to manipulate the data and identify patterns, exceptions, outliers, anomalies and solutions.