Ian Littlejohn

Your manager has approached you and asked you to create a new Microsoft Power BI dashboard for the Human Resource department to display training investment in the company, using multiple data sources.  The question is, how do you create this dashboard? In this blog post, I’m going to discuss the key steps and processes that you need to follow to create a successful dashboard.

The first step happens before you start using Power BI. You need to conceptualize your Power BI dashboard, and the best way to do this is with a piece of A4 paper and a pencil. Creating a mock-up of your dashboard is the best way to think through the questions before you start working on the actual software. It also makes visualizations on a dashboard easier.

Person in front of laptop displaying dashboards

Place the A4 paper in a landscape design so the top is wider than the sides; this will provide a good approximation for the space that a common dashboard will display. Ideally, you would like all the information on the dashboard to display on a page that can be easily viewed on somebody’s screen and does not have to be scrolled.

Let’s consider the types of information and analysis that you would use In a dashboard designed to monitor your business. This is a key step before you create a new dashboard, and it can also help you impress a hiring manager during an interview. The most common types of analysis are as follows:

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Key Metrics/Key Performance Indicators: These are the key metrics that are being communicated, and they form the backbone of your Power BI service. In this example, it may be the total training cost, number of people trained, average training cost per course, and number of training courses run. The most common visualizations for key metrics are cards, gauges, and KPIs.

Trends: Trends are about understanding how data changes over time. In this example, you may want to display how the total training cost changes by year and month in your reports and dashboards. The most common visualizations for trends are line and area graphs.

Comparisons: Comparisons are about comparing different items of data and understanding how big or small the values are and the magnitude difference between these values. In this example, comparing the total training cost of different departments would be a good example of how to use dashboards in Power BI. The column and bar graphs are used for visualizing comparisons.

Percentage contributions: Percentage contributions are a good way of understanding total contribution to a total figure. In this example, understanding the total number of people trained by gender as a percentage would be a good example. A pie graph is a good visualization for displaying percentage contributions.

Tables: Tables are used to display detailed numerical information. In this example, you may want to display a listing of your employees, their total cost, and the number of courses they have attended.

Creating your mock-up

Now that you have an idea about the different types of analysis that you can include in the dashboard and the types of data that you can display, it’s time to start creating the mock-up. Start with your piece of A4 paper in landscape position. The top left-hand side of the dashboard is the most important as people will always start in this area when viewing it.

Key metrics are normally the most important data, and I would start with these. Draw some card visualizations on the paper to display the different calculations that you would like to display. In our case, we are going to display the Total Training Cost, Number of People trained, Average Training Cost per Course, and Number of Training Courses run.

The next step is to think of the next set of analysis that you would use in your dashboard. In this example, I’m going to add a trend analysis that displays the total training cost by year and month. I’m going to place this below the key metrics.

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The next analysis that I’m going to add to the dashboard is to compare the total training cost by different departments. I’m going to use a vertical column graph to display this data so that it is easy to compare the different values by department. 

In terms of percentages, I would like to see the percentage, by gender, of the number of training courses that the employees of the company have attended. For this analysis, I’m going to use a pie chart. 

At this point, I now have a mock-up displaying the different analyses and data that will be displayed on the dashboard.

Power BI dashboard graph

Now that you have the mock-up created with the basic visualizations that you want to use in the dashboard, it is time to access the Microsoft Power BI Desktop software. You will find that it is easy to create the dashboard in the software as you already have the mock-up to provide guidance. 

My suggestion would be to not worry too much about styles and formatting at this stage. You can find that formatting can waste a lot of time during this phase. Rather, create all the visualizations and make sure that the dashboard is working in the way that you intended.

Formatting your dashboard

Once the dashboard is running the way you wanted, then move on to the formatting. Let’s look at some basic principles of formatting and the use of colors. In terms of legibility, black text on a white background is always going to be the easiest to read. If you want to use other colors, then think about light grays, blues, or browns as potential contrast colors. If you do decide to use a black background, then consider what happens if somebody wants to print the dashboard or to show the dashboard on a projector. Try to avoid using bright colors unless you intentionally want to draw attention to specific parts of the visualization.

Power BI dashboard screenshot in blue and white

Congratulations! You now have the basis for your Power BI dashboard. Hopefully, you have found this a very quick process to develop the key analyses you want to display.

The next step will be to get feedback from the audience as to what works and what does not. You will also find that you will spend time on the formatting and fine-tuning of your dashboard. You will also find that you will spend time adding filters into your dashboard to provide more interactivity for your audience. Just a word of warning: Do not add too many filters and interactive elements, as this can very quickly overwhelm your audience. Good luck and happy dashboard creation!

Page Last Updated: April 2022