How to design in Power BI (and anything else) like a freakin’ rockstar.

Hey you. How’s it going?

This is my mom, Marguerite (or Margie, as everyone knew her).

Mom passed away a few years ago, and I still miss her every day, and she factors hugely into today’s post about design.

Mom was an x-ray and ultrasound technician. For over 40 years… from the late 1950s to when she retired in 2005. She worked with a huge range of technology over a lifetime of giving x-rays and ultrasounds to tens of thousands of people.

Adults, kid, famous hockey players.

She was such an expert in her field that by her 40s, she could spot things some radiologists (like, doctors trained to read x-rays) missed. Young doctors would ask her to check over x-rays sometimes, just in case.

So, she knew EVERYTHING about x-rays and ultrasounds, but also managing an office (because she’d usually have to do that too) and putting people at ease (both kids and adults) because they had to be calm and motionless for the scans to be clear.

Also, mom never could figure out home computers. Deciphering them was like learning a new language for her, and by the time there was one in their house, she was at the point in life where she didn’t need to.

She’d often say “I’ve somehow survived without using a home computer so far… I’ll keep doing what I’m doing”.

Not to say she didn’t try, but at some point the effort exerted wasn’t worth the benefits to her. She didn’t need email.. she’d phone us when she wanted to talk.

I miss those calls so much.

I’m sure you know someone like my Mom. Someone who is an absolute ROCKSTAR at what they’ve dedicated years and years to. Someone who can tell you EVERYTHING about that subject, whether it’s x-rays, or event production, or e-commerce, or app development, or evaluation survey creation, or whatever.

I’m a rockstar with visualizing data with Excel and Power BI. It’s not bragging if it’s true, right?

How does this relate to design in Power BI? People-friendly Power BI? Or in anything else. Maybe you’ve already figured it out.

When you’re designing something (anything), there’s a 99.99% chance you’re gonna be sharing it. You try and design something awesome, because if who you share it with really likes it, they’re gonna share it with others.

It could be your boss sharing it with their boss, and their boss sharing it with your Board of Directors.

Or it’s something (a graphic, a chart, a dashboard, whatever!) you put out on social media with the hopes of it going viral (we’ll ignore the dumpster fire that social media is for now).

The point here is that you are making something for an audience. It’s not going to be only YOU looking at what you’re designing. You are designing for others, and they do not have the same skills that you do.

When designing with Power BI, YOU are a data person. You probably know that data inside and out. You dream about that data (or have nightmares about it).

But, no one else does.

Yet, most Power BI dashboards are designed like their audience are data people. Most of them cram a ton of data onto every page, with no explanation about what the data means, or if a chart is showing something good or bad, or even worse, there’s a giant table of numbers with no explanation why any of them may be important.

Power BI developers design for themselves. If they can understand a dashboard, then it’s awesome… everyone else should “get” it too.

But most Power BI developers are data people. Like, hardcore data people. They know the difference between “On Prem” and “Azure” and why a company should use a Data Lake versus a Data Warehouse (or vice versa). They are AWESOME at what they do… making data work.

They are not good at communicating the messages and information that data to others (Sorry data people. you know I’m right). If you have a data person who is the life of the party, belting out karaoke tunes, having regular conversations with regular people, you have a unicorn on your hands (and that unicorn will probably be promoted soon, as they can provide a bridge between technology and people).

Unicorns are super rare. That’s why they’re called unicorns.

You NEED to understand and be able to talk to people to design great Power BI reports that people will USE regularly, if not LOVE.

That’s why, whenever I design a report for any audience that isn’t data people (for a CEO, or a Board, or a department full of people who’s job is NOT data, or something that will be on a website, or shared on social media), I think of my mom.

Would mom understand this dashboard? Could she look at it and immediately know what it was saying? What the key insights were? We’re talking seconds here. Would she know everything she needed to know within seconds?

This is YOUR audience when you design. My mom (metaphorically).

Your audience is people who are excellent at what they do, which is almost certainly not data. People who need to use your dashboard (or chart, or whatever) and get something from it immediately.

They don’t have the time (or the desire) to click around and filter things different ways and waste a bunch of time looking for a number.

You HAVE to remember that.

I’m not saying I’m perfect at this. When I get feedback about a dashboard, it sometimes is like “Joe, I love this… but I couldn’t quite figure out …” and as soon as I hear that I listen VERY closely to what they couldn’t figure out. I don’t explain to them where to find the information they need, I redesign and GIVE them the information, so they don’t have to go looking for it.

It’s what Mom would’ve loved.

We’re not designing for data people. We’re designing for normal people.