How I design dashboards in Data Studio — Part 1: Data hierarchy and telling your story

Josh Cottrell-Schloemer
5 min readApr 28, 2021


This is the first of several articles in my Data Studio design series. You can find links to the other articles here.

So you’ve got a new project and need to decide what direction take it. We’re going to do two exercises to get started:

  1. Understand your audience
  2. Tell them a story in their own language

Understanding your audience

This is the most frequently overlooked step in building a dashboard. But I’d argue it’s the most important. Know your audience and understand their needs.

You need to learn as much as possible about three core people:

  1. The user(s) of your dashboards
  2. Whoever you report to for the project (typically a PM)
  3. Whoever signs off on the budget

Any and all details are helpful. We want to empathize with our audiences as much as possible because that allows us to build something they will actually use (instead of what we think they should use).

Here are a few examples of what I start with:

  • What is my user’s job? What is their level of proficiency?
  • How familiar are they with good data practices? Will this person know the difference between correlation and causation?
  • Will this tool make their job easier or harder? What part of their job could this dashboard improve?
  • What (if any) expectations do they have about this dashboard?
  • How much time do they spend on the part of their job related to my dashboard? Does this dashboard actually matter to them or is it just another tool that they have to learn to use?

I also ask a few more questions related to whoever I report to and whoever signs off on the budget:

  • What does the project manager need to show their boss to justify their role in the project? Do they just need to show them a cool looking dashboard or do they need to show that the dashboard actually improved a KPI?
  • What is the person approving the budget expecting as a deliverable and what do they need to justify the expense of the project?

You can’t always get all of this information, but it’s worth trying to learn as much as you possibly can. The more you know, the better equipped you will be to make something your user’s will actually use.

Tell them a story in their own language

Now that you know your audience you can start to build a framework for the dashboard.

When I talk about telling your user a story, I mean using visual language and terminology to present actionable insights that they will actually understand. To persuade someone to take action you need to communicate with them in a way that is clear and easily understandable.

Keeping in mind the answers from the last section, we’re going to do a narrative exercise to help us understand how to structure our data.

The narrative pyramid:

Start by trying to describe what you’re building for your client in 2–5 words.

Then try describing it in a full sentence.

Then describe it in 2–3 sentences.

If necessary, keep going until you have as many sentences as you need to fully explain what you’re building.

Now we want to map this to our dashboard considering the hierarchy.

What are the minimal metrics needed to answer the top-most section of the pyramid? If it boils down to one core metric, then that’s probably what you should highlight on the page.

Then move to the next section. What further metrics/guidance are needed to capture that section? What guidance will you need to add to make that make sense? These will most likely become the secondary or supporting metrics.

Continue all the way through until you have a sense of what metrics you need on the page, the hierarchy of those metrics, and the narrative that stitches them together.

In this example I knew I needed to explain the top KPIs in plain english (eg. “How many people have seen your ads?”), that I needed the other KPIs to include a trendline to quickly see performance over time, and that I needed a drill-down section that showed the individual ads and/or individual campaigns to see what was working best.

Once you have an idea of what you’re building and what it’s supposed to do you can start to think about structuring your page. That guide will be released next week [now released, you can read it here]. Subscribe to get notified, or you can hit me up on Twitter where I’ll be posting updates and answering Data Studio questions.

Series links:

Thanks for tuning in!

Josh Cottrell
Supermetrics Super Fan



Josh Cottrell-Schloemer

Building data-focused products. Startups acquired=1. Hobby = making Google Data Studio & Excel beautiful.