Dashboard Design Thinking

By Jenn Schilling

In this article I’m going to discuss the design thinking process and how it relates to creating dashboards. Using the design thinking process enables you to create user-centric dashboards that empower your stakeholders to make effective decisions. 

After reading this article, you’ll be able to explain the six steps of design thinking, relate design thinking to dashboard design, and apply design thinking to your next dashboard project.

First, let’s define design thinking. Design thinking is an ideology and process for solving complex problems in a user-centric way, ensuring great experiences and outcomes for the user. The six phases of design thinking, according to the Nielsen Norman Group, are empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and implement. Empathize and define help us understand the problem. Ideate and prototype help us explore solutions. Test and implement help us materialize the final product. 

Why use Design Thinking?

Design thinking offers value to data scientists by focusing on the audience to find out what they want and need to enhance their data-informed decision making. Design thinking is beneficial because it is user centered. It starts with understanding the user and their needs and ends with testing solutions with the user to get feedback. Design thinking also encourages innovation and collaboration. 

How does Design Thinking relate to creating dashboards?

Incorporating the principles of design thinking can help provide a framework for dealing with ambiguous and complex problems like designing and building a dashboard. Human-centered design can also help ensure the resulting dashboard is actionable and valuable for stakeholders. The power in this method is that it provides a gradual step-by-step framework to get from a problem space with many unknowns to a well-defined solution. 

What happens in each step of Dashboard Design Thinking?

The first step is to empathize. Take the time to understand your users: what questions are they trying to answer with data, what goals do they have, what frustrations burden them. During this stage, you can ask questions like: Who will use the dashboard? What is important to them? How will this dashboard save the user time in finding the information they need? 

The next step is to identify and define the core problems your users have in using and accessing data. Ask questions like: What key pieces of information should be displayed? What questions should the dashboard answer? Documenting and defining the problem and expected outcome of the dashboard makes it clear for everyone involved what is being worked towards in the development of the dashboard.  

In the third step, you will challenge your existing assumptions and create ideas. Look for alternative ways to view the problem and identify solutions. Brainstorming and mind mapping are examples of activities during the ideate step. The details and aesthetics don’t matter at this stage – the goal is just to generate as many ideas as possible. Focus on quantity over quality. 

Rapid prototyping in the fourth step provides an opportunity to get early feedback from users. Prototypes allow us to experiment with a few ideas from the ideation step to identify the best possible solution. A prototype is a quick, scaled-down version of the dashboard. Prototyping allows you to explore and test the functionality of your ideas and find issues with the layout or structure prior to development. Prototyping also makes collaboration easier since the prototype can provide a blueprint for the final dashboard. 

The next step is to test and try out your prototypes to get feedback. Think about the use cases for the dashboard - does the prototype meet the needs of the users identified in the empathize step? Does the prototype fulfill the user requirements identified in the define step? The test step is a collaborative and iterative process. If possible, in this stage, return directly to the users for feedback.

Finally, put your vision into effect through implementation. During this stage, implement the best possible solution that includes feedback from the testing stage. Communication is another part of the implementation step to share the dashboard with users and explain use cases

These stages are not always sequential, and they are often repeated in an iterative fashion. You will continue to return to your users to evaluate and refine your solutions, and sometimes you might cycle back and forth between stages.


To apply design thinking to you next dashboard project, start with the user in mind and gather information to understand what they need to know from data. Then identify the core problems they experience when trying to access data. Brainstorm possible solutions to the problem and try to think about the user’s experience from different angles. Next start to experiment and create prototypes of potential solutions. Test your prototypes with the users or your colleagues and observe how they interact with the solution. Finally, implement the best possible solution and deliver it to your users with a clear communication plan. 

Design thinking is a powerful framework that enables you to take advantage of a clear process when developing dashboards. It focuses attention on the user and their experience, which creates insightful dashboards that your users will be delighted to engage with. 

About the Author

Jenn Schilling is a Senior Research Analyst at the University of Arizona, a Data Science Mentor at RStudio, an adjunct faculty member at the College for Creative Studies, and the founder of Schilling Data Studio, a data visualization training and consulting agency. Jenn has over a decade of experience in data visualization and data science and enjoys teaching and sharing her knowledge with others to support better data communication.

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