How to build a content dashboard

A content dashboard is a central place for doing all the things you, or your team, need to do to work with content.

Ideally, a content dashboard is a simple as possible.

A complex interface often creates more options than you need. Simple decisions and tasks become more complicated and effort-filled than necessary. The result is inefficiency and frustration.

Of course, a content dashboard that can’t do what you need it to do is equally frustrating. That’s probably what you’re dealing with now, and why an article about building a content dashboard drew your attention. “Ah,” you think, “This is the way to solve the frustration of not having everything in one place, of feeling behind, feeling like I don’t have a big picture, feeling like I spend more time figuring out how to do the work than actually doing the work.”

A content dashboard may help solve the issues that contribute to those feelings. It’s certainly helped me.

But realize that clarity is the foundational need. You can build a stellar content dashboard and still feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Clarity first. Goals second. Action third.

What do you do with content?

Before you can picture (or build) the kind of content dashboard you need, you need to know exactly what you’re doing with content.

Here’s what I do with content, more or less.

1. Planning
2. Creating
3. Managing
4. Promoting
5. Assessing
6. Maintaining
7. Expanding

Your process may be slightly different. Before you can picture the content dashboard that will serve you well, define your content process. Name the stages of your content workflow, the big-picture moves.

You don’t have to break down all the steps you (or someone) will take in, say, the Creating stage (research, outline, draft, edit, revise, create assets, work with design, proofread, etc.). When you do that, your big-picture becomes a zoomed-in, detail-filled focal point and you lose sight of the whole process. At the right time, that’s appropriate! But now is not the right time.

When you’re trying to picture and build a content dashboard, you need the big-picture view of your content workflow.

Think of stages, rather than steps.

What you need in a content dashboard

Now that you know the stages of your content workflow, you’re ready to think about what your content dashboard can do—or should do—for you.

Here’s the important thing to remember: a content dashboard does not need to have all the features necessary to do the work of each content stage.

The content dashboard needs to be capable of three things:

Tracking: Show you (and others on your team) where each project or assignment is, which stage it’s in, and how far along it is in that particular stage. I call this tracking. It’s kind of like scheduling, but with more flexibility. The emphasis isn’t on getting a certain task done at a certain time, but on forward movement: following a natural flow, enabling autonomy, and working efficiently.

Sharing: Make it easy for you (and others on your team) to access what they need for each stage and, if possible, for each step or task within that stage. It’s resource and information sharing: what is needed to complete the next task? Here it is. What’s shared could be a link, a document, a draft, a checklist, a discussion, etc.

Logging: Hold notes or some other record that shows what’s been done (and, preferably, when and by whom). It’s the way you ensure that completed means completed. It helps you notice what isn’t working (inconsistencies, inefficiencies, frequent errors) and what is working (ideas, improvements, follow-up notes, themes).

If you’re a solo creator, it’s easy to settle for a content dashboard that works for you and you alone. I think that’s a mistake.

Here’s why.

First, we tend to tolerate our own disorganization and procrastination far more than we should. If you wouldn’t work “this way” in a team, or when a client is watching, why force yourself to work that way anytime?

Second, we tend to discount the value of systems and defined processes for solo work. That often means we end up working inefficiently, feeling frustrated, and thinking that it’s all our fault.

In a sense, it is: we are being too hard on ourselves.

We aren’t giving ourselves the tools and information we need to do the work we want to do. However, we think our failure is all our fault in a much deeper, more detrimental sense: that we’re flawed, somehow. That we’re incapable. That we’re unqualified imposters, and the only answer is to work harder, work longer, do more, suffer more, and try to keep our shit together long enough to reach some mythical productivity castle-on-a-hill in which all secrets will be revealed, efficiency enlightenment will rain upon us, our self-doubt will dry up, and we will finally know that we are good enough to do the work we want to do.

If any of that rings true for you, here is the somewhat harsh but freeing realization you might need: the only castle on a hill you’ll reach is the one you’re building, right now. Build it out of poor materials, with a haphazard plan, frustration, bad timing, and undefined standards and you’ll get a junk pile. You don’t want that. You don’t have to settle for that. In order not to end up with a junk pile, you need to see the value in doing things right, right now, even if you’re the only one who knows about it.

Doing things right does not mean delaying the real work so you can test out a hundred tools, play on fifty different platforms, and waste your time fiddling with overly complex systems. That’s why it’s important to define the work you actually do, the stages of it, before you start building a content dashboard. Define what you need so you can picture what you need. Then you’ll be able to identify the right materials and build the thing.

How to build your content dashboard

Here’s the step-by-step breakdown.

1. Identify the stages of your content workflow.

Don’t worry about naming all the steps or defining the purpose for each stage, or otherwise getting lost in details. Just name the stages. Maybe there’s only one stage. Maybe three. Maybe eleven. List them.

2. Think about the tracking, sharing, and logging that you want for each stage of your content workflow.

What kind of files do you share? How much information moves back and forth? How does it all have to work, for it to keep working? What can change? From this thinking, list the essential features that a content dashboard needs to work for you.

Here’s my list:

  • file and image uploading
  • notes with formatted text (essential for links and identifying the key information)
  • a way to discuss or share notes, ideas, comments, questions
  • labeling, tagging, or other organizational method to sort various projects/assignments, and to identify which stage each one is in
  • available and synced on my laptop and phone/ipad
  • usable offline
  • ability to back up data (automated if possible)

I have some other features on my list, too, as “preferred” but not necessary.

Now that you know precisely what you need from a content dashboard, you can find a tool that fits. There are many. You can sort through them however you want, just beware of the infinite nature of this pursuit. Give yourself a time limit, and honor it.

You could dedicate an hour to researching tools, pick your top three, and then start a trial for each one. Use one for a day or so, then the next, and so on. At the end of the week, pick the one that is easiest to use.

As far as setting up your content dashboard, don’t.

Instead, just start using it.

You’re going to change your initial configuration anyway. Skip the part where you try to guess what your ultimate setup will be and dive in.

Start using it.

Input the information you need as you need it. Put things in place, and move them around. Don’t become loyal to any element of your organization, which will happen if you’ve invested time and energy into a particular setup. Become loyal, instead, to making it easy to do good work. Follow that trail, and you’ll find a setup that may not be obvious but will actually work.

Our systems are always in flux, so there is no perfect system, ever. But smart use of systems, like a content dashboard, can make your work more efficient and easier. It’s a really nice feeling to have a system you use and can trust. It frees your brain from detail chasing and email answering, and gets you back to creative thinking and making. Have fun.

Photo by Ola Syrocka on Unsplash