A focus on visualizations: KPI panels


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The first step to building an awesome, easy-to-read dashboard is to think of who your final report will be presented to. You want to make sure your charts are clear, understandable, and allow your reader to get actionable insights. With the end result in mind, you should be able to create a great dashboard or report for your stakeholders. Although KPIs are often thought of as much less visual than the charts that accompany them in dashboards, at Sweetspot we have found that adding visual elements makes them even easier to comprehend.

Therefore we use KPI panels that, apart from numerical and descriptive aspects, include a number of visual elements.

Sweetspot Intelligence KPI panel

KPI panels are customizable but may feature different pieces of information, such as a visual indicator of performance, current value, variation, trend, prediction, and goals.

KPI status Icons:

KPI status icons hold a lot of weight when it comes to reporting directly to your stakeholders, as they show a representative image of the state of the indicator. They are, or should be, easy to understand and allow the reader to get quick insight into how your KPIs are performing.

At Sweetspot we often use weather element icons to represent the status of a KPI based on its current state compared to a historical trend. The reader should be able to identify the association  each status icon has to the trend or to the variation (explained in further detail below). For example, when the reader sees a storm, they will associate the icon to a negative trend, or a variation that is low in comparison to the variation defined by the dashboard user. On the contrary, a sunny icon represents a positive trend, or the KPI in the current period is showing better performance than in the previous period. The point is there is little room for communication errors and the reader has the ability to quickly take in the information presented, as long as the dashboard consumer understands exactly how variation is defined in these instances.

Reach KPIKPI engagementThere are number of status icons dashboard creators may choose from to represent KPIs, the most important thing being that the status icons hold a clear significance for both the designer and the reader. At Sweetspot we have our weather default icons, as well as the option to customize icons with those that best fit your company’s aim visually.

Exercise your creative side, with caution, and pick a series of performance icons that resonate with your reader. Just remember KPI status icons are extremely powerful and draw the reader’s eye, allowing them to see how the KPI is performing instantly. So make sure you send the right signal.

Things to consider:


kpi colorsWe recognize the significance of colors from everyday life, take for example a stop light, red meaning ‘stop’ is negative, while green has a positive significance. You wouldn’t use blue, orange and pink because together they don’t share a common meaning. In other graphs, such as the line or bar graph, you have more freedom when it comes to color choices, KPI colorsproviding that they are not visually distracting, but rather complement the effectiveness of the visualization.

Shape: If you are going to go with something simple like using just a shape we suggest keeping it uniform. For example three circles with a clear color sequence.

star KPIKPI heart One shape which can be rather misleading is the star. No matter how you color a star, it will always be a symbol that holds a positive significance. The heart has the same impact on stakeholders: maybe you think it is “romantic” to turn your report into a lovely Valentine’s Day themed display, but your stakeholders probably won’t find the same amusement in your efforts. Stick to the basic shapes like the triangle, square or circle.

Symbol: There are numerous symbols you can pick from to help define your KPIs. This may be a good place to think outside the box and show your company’s culture in reports. If you have a symbol that speaks to your company use it, but there must be a clear value behind each symbols use that is universally understood. For example, at Nike they may want to use the company’s tick logo to represent their KPIs.

There are of course many common symbols you may choose from as well, to communicate how your KPIs are performing, such as smiley and frowny faces, or ticks and crosses.smiley face KPI

Current Value

The current value section of the KPI panel allows user to get a quick insight into the value a KPI is performing during an analyzed period. Current value may be represented as a percentage, or an absolute value. For example, the first KPI panel below shows percentage of reach, while the second example measures the absolute value of exposures obtained in one period. As a stakeholder, I can see this section of the panel and very quickly understand how my KPIs are performing. Be sure to always include the unit of measurement to avoid confusion, for instance, exposure hits or the percentage.

KPI current value panel  kpi current value


The variation is a comparison of the current value of an indicator against a previous value, as defined by the dashboard user. The variation can be shown compared to the previous month, year, week or even day, depending on the user’s needs, it follows the frequency of the panel as its guide. Say, for example, you are measuring total pageviews monthly, you have the choice of viewing the current value against the value of the previous month or even the same month of the previous year. Choose the option that will give your stakeholder the most powerful insights.

The KPI performance icon can be based on this value and how it is performing. In the example below you can see variation compared to the previous month. The numbers defined on each side are chosen by the analyst depending on their business objectives. If your status icons are defined by the variation, and the variation surpasses the threshold defined for the panel, it will KPI variation be represented by a positive indicator. However, if it surpasses the lower limit it will be negative.

In the example above, the first variation does not reach the threshold, therefore it should be represented by a neutral icon. The second variation, however, surpasses the threshold, so it must be represented by a positive icon. Keep in mind all variation limits must be decided upon by the dashboard designer.


kpi trend lineIn order to get a quick view of historical data, a trend line helps the dashboard viewer to get an overall idea of how the KPI has been performing in previous periods, as well as provides a prediction for the future of the KPI.

In the example you can see the trend for the last 6 months in purple, while the prediction is distinguished by a lighter hue. This section of the KPI panel provides the reader with a quick insight as to the behavior of the KPI and direction it will most likely follow.

KPI predictive trend lineThe extended prediction line is an amazing feature when it comes to KPI panels. An algorithm based on previous data automatically extends the trend line and provides the reader with the parameters of possible future activity. At Sweetspot the reader may hover their cursor over the line to see the value of the prediction as well as the controlled limits which are calculated by the panel itself. This feature leaves the designer stress-free, and the dashboard reader well-informed.


kpi goalWhile you’re deciding on your KPIs, at Sweetspot you also have the option to define meaningful goals. This is a great option when you would like to set a target, and clearly communicate the status or progress made to reach it.

Imagine you want to set a goal that would communicate to your stakeholders how many unique users access your website. You can define your objective as a certain absolute value, let’s say 6,000. In case you meet this target it will read “Success” in the “Goal” section, as the example below demonstrates. And if the objective is not yet reached you will see a notification in yellow stating “In progress”, as well as the percentage of your goal achieved thus far.

Not only are goals a way of clearly defining intentions for which your business may work towards, but they are a powerful way of demonstrating to your stakeholders the direction and focus of your KPIs in relation to your business objectives.

In conclusion:

Don’t forget the “little-guy”! The KPI panel, although not used in all dashboards, serves the purpose of communicating a straightforward and dynamic message to readers. With the various categories represented it allows readers to get an overall view of the performance of key metrics influencing your business!

How do you use KPI panels for your reporting needs?


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Holly McKendry

Sweetspot Marketing Director. Wakeboarder & travel enthusiast. Communication Studies graduate of Texas State University, San Marcos.

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