ARTICLE: Kyle Bentle

Understanding user needs is key to taking your EdTech data dashboard from “so what?” to “so useful!”

Today’s instructors and students expect EdTech products to offer actionable, data-driven insights that pave the way for smarter decisions and improved learning outcomes. So it’s no wonder data visualization dashboards are increasingly par for the course in the EdTech space. Unfortunately, though, not all data dashboards live up to their potential. Too many overpromise in appearance — but underdeliver in actual user value.

You see, a lot of data dashboards function like information fire hoses. Rather than presenting a carefully curated selection of insights, they overwhelm users with a high-powered torrent of data points.

Dashboards like these often look impressive at first glance — with so many charts and graphs in one place, how can they not be brimming with useful information? In the end, though, overstuffed dashboards are most likely to leave users scratching their heads: “Okay, that’s cool. But so what?” 

That this happens isn’t terribly surprising. After all, most EdTech products are data-collection machines. And with the digital tools available today, it’s almost too easy to grab a React library off the shelf and throw together an attractive-looking dashboard that displays everything but the kitchen sink. 

The good news is that you can design a data dashboard that’s indispensable rather than indecipherable. All you have to do is preempt the “so what?” by presenting users with the right information at the right time. And you do that by leveraging user research before you start designing. 

Does your EdTech product’s data dashboard offer real value to users?

The best dashboards are selective. They focus on answering users’ most pressing questions and provide helpful nudges toward the most optimal next steps. 

Take a look at your existing data dashboard. To what extent are you throwing the proverbial pot of data at the wall to see what sticks? To assess how useful it really is, ask yourself whether your data dashboard: 

Tells users what they need to know

A nice-looking data dashboard is only ornamentation if it isn’t actionable. 

Your data dashboard should proactively answer users’ biggest questions. For example, students are likely focused on what they can do to improve their individual performance, whether that’s how to manage their time or which course materials to revisit before their next exam. And instructors may be most interested in figuring out how they can optimize their teaching to achieve better outcomes across the board: Which students are struggling? What concepts are causing the most difficulty? And so on.

If the data displayed in your dashboard doesn’t speak to those needs, it’s probably not worth your users’ limited time. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean you can’t deliver novel or unexpected insights. It’s just that those insights need to elicit more than a passing interest. They must be relevant and applicable to users’ lives. 

Your data dashboard should proactively answer users’ biggest questions.

Tries to do too much

When it comes to data dashboards, less is usually more. If your dashboard is the equivalent of a data free-for-all, you may be drowning your users in useless information.

But what if you’re presenting truly valuable insights? Even then, a “more is more” approach could result in information overload. It could cause users to feel overwhelmed, confused, or just plain frustrated that they have to dig for the details they need. 

Bottom line? Showcasing data just because you have it is like inviting your users into a cluttered room. Instead, leverage user research to uncover the insights that will add the most value to your users’ lives — then elevate those data points.

Enables users to make smarter decisions faster

Students and instructors alike are extremely busy. This means they typically won’t navigate to your dashboard with the intent of lingering as they carefully parse the data. (Besides that, not all users are data-literate enough to do so even if they had the time.) 

What your users really want is for your data dashboard to quickly highlight issues or opportunities and point them in the right direction. In that sense, your dashboard is a momentary layover, not your users’ final destination. 

Even if your users do expect your EdTech product to answer a large number of complex, data-driven questions, it’s unlikely you really need to answer all of them at once. Instead, take a phased approach. Start with a high-level overview of only the most critical insights. Then give users the ability to dive deeper at their own pace if they want to find out more.

What your users really want is for your data dashboard to quickly highlight issues or opportunities and point them in the right direction.


Visualizes data in ways users can understand 

There are many kinds of data visualizations, from pie charts and bar graphs to scatter plots and bubble charts. The visualization “container” you choose for each dataset matters. Some charts and graphs are better suited to certain types of data. Others are more familiar to specific user groups or are simply more accurately “read” by human eyes. 

Regardless, if you display data in a way that runs counters to your users’ mental models, you will create unnecessary friction. That discomfort could lead users to avoid the dashboard altogether. Not only that, but if the data you provide can be easily misinterpreted or misunderstood, users may make poor decisions as a result. 

How to build a data visualization dashboard users actually need 

Building a dashboard that solves problems instead of creating them means keeping your users’ needs front and center. That’s the only way to elevate the right data: the opportunities, trends, and issues that are most applicable to your users’ lives. 

If you’re planning to design a new data dashboard (or if user research says your existing one is more “so what?” than “so useful”), you have work to do. Take the following steps to ensure you keep from straying from what’s best for your users — and, by extension, what’s best for your product.

1. Define your users 

Any EdTech product worth its salt begins and ends with user needs. That implies defining who those users are in the first place.

Categorizing your users as “instructors” or “students” is not enough. A seasoned accounting instructor will have different priorities and skill sets than a new writing instructor. A first year nursing student will have a vastly different course load than a senior year film student. 

Your understanding of your users should shape the way you design your dashboard. For instance, your average users’ level of data literacy is extremely relevant to the decisions you make in your data dashboard.

2. Map out user journeys 

In order to craft a truly useful data dashboard, you need to understand your users’ day-to-day responsibilities, goals, and challenges beyond the confines of your product. How do they complete tasks, and how does your EdTech product fit into the picture? Knowing this broader context can give you clues about the kinds of insights that would be most useful for your user base. 

Within your product, user analytics can also shed light on how your users interact with your current dashboard. Do they check it regularly (or at certain, predictable points in their journey)? Or do they rarely visit it at all? If they do use your dashboard, are they utilizing it as you expected?

3. Uncover users’ top questions 

Talk with your users and ask them directly:

  • What do they most want to learn from your data dashboard?
  • What questions do they have? Which of them are most pressing, and why?
  • How are they currently using your product to make decisions? Are there opportunities for data-driven insights to step in and fill the gaps? 

4. Facilitate users’ next steps. 

The more your product can offer answers and solutions the moment they’re needed, the better. By anticipating your users’ next steps, you can ensure you are providing actionable insights and suggestions in the right places. And in some cases, that right place may not be the dashboard. You may find, after thorough research, that insights you planned to deliver via the dashboard are better placed elsewhere. 

For example, offering a prompt for assigning extra-credit in the grade-entry screen allows instructors to take immediate action when a student is struggling. If the instructor navigates away from the grade-entry screen and back to the dashboard, it may be difficult to remember to attend to that particular student. 

By prioritizing user research, you can carefully curate a truly useful data dashboard that avoids the “so what?” — and makes your EdTech product even more valuable than it is today.

  • Photo of Kyle Bentle
    Kyle Bentle

    Kyle’s journey to the world of UX is an uncommon one. After earning a journalism degree from Ball State University with a concentration in graphic design, he spent the next decade working in news organizations in Jacksonville and Chicago. In his previous role as designer and journalist at the Chicago Tribune, Kyle juggled the needs of many stakeholders while collaborating on multidisciplinary teams under immense deadline pressure. As a data visualization expert, he brings a rare ability to analyze and translate complex information and concepts into engaging and understandable stories. Outside of work, he enjoys time with his wife, Lee Ann, and their dog, Scooter. Among his hobbies are biking, spending time outdoors, and painting poorly (his words).

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