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Dashboard design best practices

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How to build a successful data dashboard

Are you about to learn the essentials of effective dashboard design so you can successfully build and implement KPI dashboards for your business?

Do one-legged ducks swim in circles?

Read on because we’re about to take you through some high-level best practices for dashboard design and handy guidelines around the use of data visualizations that will enable you to confidently build beautiful, actionable dashboards that inspire and motivate everyone around you.

Sound good? Ok, let’s do this.

Who are you trying to impress with your dashboard?

Think about the audience for your dashboard. It’s important that your dashboard consists of data that’s specific to a single audience. This step is often overlooked, leading to a dashboard that contains an overwhelming mix of data – some of which is relevant to one audience and confusing to another.

The most effective dashboards target a single type of user and just display data targeted at that ‘use case’. So, be clear from the start whether you’re building an executive dashboard, a marketing dashboard, a sales dashboard, an operations dashboard, a support dashboard or something else, as long as it’s specific. Here are some good dashboard examples that all focus on a specific element of a business.


Pick the right type of dashboard

There are three common types of dashboard, each performing a specific purpose:

  1. Operational - Think of an operational dashboard as monitoring the nerve centre of your business. Operational dashboards often require real-time or near real-time data to highlight issues or opportunities as they happen, and enable action to be taken as quickly as possible.
  2. Strategic / Executive - Strategic dashboards will typically provide the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) that company executive teams track on a periodic (daily, weekly or monthly) basis. A strategic dashboard should provide the executive team with a high-level overview of the state of the business together with the opportunities the business faces.
  3. Analytical - this type of dashboard will offer drill-down functionality, allowing the user to explore more of the data and get different insights.

Bear in mind that different user groups may require several types of dashboard. The marketing manager may need both a Strategic and Operational view of their data. If this is the case, you’d ideally want to create two separate dashboards.

Data visualization – Keep your design simple

There are many ways of presenting data and it seems we are constantly searching for new ways of visualizing it. Like the proverbial ‘kid in a candy store’, the dashboard designer often appears to have got so excited with the many ways of presenting their data that they have lost sight of the objective of the dashboard they are creating.

Cluttered displays deflect the focus from the important messages. Some are cluttered with useful and relevant information and some are cluttered with useless and irrelevant information. Neither of these situations are desirable.

With so much choice on the market, it is no wonder that most dashboards you see have been totally over-designed and are horrible to look at. A dashboard’s primary purpose is to provide relevant and timely information to it’s audience and should never be used by the developer or designer as a method of displaying technical or artistic capability.

When creating a new dashboard, if you take just one thing away from this article, it should be this: Keep it simple!

A well-designed dashboard should focus on the message that the dashboard is trying to convey. Any component or visualization that is not directly contributing to the message should be removed.

This includes:

  • Logos - In some instances logos are required, but does the Operations Manager really need to be reminded of the company he is working for?
  • Navigation - If you need to include navigation options on your dashboard, have you really designed the dashboard correctly?
  • Non-essential text - Keep labelling and instructions to an absolute minimum.
  • Too much colour - Use subtle shades of the same colour when presenting multiple data series. Don’t force the user to wear sunglasses to read your dashboard!
  • 3-Dimensional objects - We’ve never seen a dashboard where 3-D enhances the message. Avoid at all cost.
  • Horizontal or vertical guide lines - In some instances guidelines are useful, but overusing them detracts from the data.
  • Too much detail - Displaying revenue in the format $1,254,345.67 to the CEO probably works less well than simply $1.25m.

Group data logically and use space wisely in your creation

A well designed dashboard will ensure that data is displayed in logical groups. For example, if a dashboard includes Financial KPIs and a Sales Pipeline, ensure that the financial data is displayed next to each other with the Sales Pipeline data displayed together in a separate logical group.

Grouping is often by department or functional area and can include:

  • Product (Inventory, development)
  • Sales / Marketing
  • Finance (Actuals and forecasts)
  • People

marketing-dashboard An example of a focused Marketing dashboard. See it live here.

Often the most important real-estate on a dashboard (top left hand corner) is reserved for a company logo or a navigation tool. This is not good dashboard practice as the part of the screen is the most important part of your dashboard – this is because most western languages read from top to bottom and from left to right – hence our eye will start its journey when discovering something new at the top left hand corner.

Make the data relevant to the audience

A KPI dashboard can have a number of different audiences. Ensure that the data you display is relevant to the users. Think about the scope and reach of your data:

  • The whole company
  • By department
  • Individuals
  • Suppliers

Ensure that you understand exactly who the intended audience is and the scope of their requirements. In a small organisation, an Executive dashboard is likely to include KPI data across all departments. However, in a larger company, each department may have their own individual dashboard.

How often does the data need to be refreshed?

Examples of refresh rates on dashboards include real-time (or near real-time), daily, weekly and monthly. As a rule of thumb, operational dashboards require data in real-time or near real-time, whereas executive/strategic dashboards require data refreshed on a less frequent basis.

Useful data visualizations

Now that you’ve got an idea of what a good dashboard looks like, let’s talk about the actual building blocks of your dashboard creation – data visualizations. Here are a few useful ones to get you started:

Number + Secondary stat number-secondary-stat-data-visualization

This is perhaps the simplest way of displaying a single metric. No fancy graphic, just the metric. Exceedingly simple and very impactful. By displaying a secondary number you provide some context, so the user knows if the number is good or bad. In this example we can see that we have 8,620 people in trial and that this is down 20 from the previous week.

When to use: When displaying a single measure.

When not to use: To display multiple related measures.

Top tip: Always show a comparative value. This provides the user with context (is the number good or bad). In this example the comparative value is expressed as a percentage of a previous period’s measure, however it could be an absolute number and it could also be compared to a target or forecast.

Bar charts bar-chart-data-visualization

The bar chart is one of the best ways of visualising single (or multiple) series of data. And yet, because it’s such a simple solution, many people either overlook it in favour of something more elaborate or implement it in such a way as to reduce its impact (for example making it 3-dimensional). In the example above, the bar chart is displaying ‘T-shirts sold by size’ using a horizontal layout. It’s instantly clear that ‘Medium’ is the best seller and that ‘X-Large’ sold fewest. Nothing detracts from the important message.

When to use: When displaying data over a number of related series (Time, Region, Product)

When not to use: When you have more than 1 series of data that have no relationship to each other.

Top tip: Keep the colour for each series the same. Use subtle shades of the same colour to represent different data series. Do NOT be tempted to use 3-D!

Line charts like-chart-data-visualization

Line charts are excellent at showing the relationship of a set of data when measured against a series of values. The line ‘ties’ the current value with the previous and so in a scenario where you want to show how a value has changed over time, the line chart is the only serious option. Line charts can show a number of data-sets across the same series. For example, a line chart is ideal for showing stock price over time where you can also show multiple stock prices and see how they compare to each other over time.

When to use: When displaying data over a number of related series where it’s important to show the relationship between data in the same series (most typically this is ‘time’).

When not to use: In a situation where you want to draw attention to the individual values for each period’ a line graph can often hide this.

Top Tip: Keep the colour for each series the same. Use subtle shades of the same colour to represent different data series. Do NOT be tempted to use 3-D!

Sparklines sparkline-data-visualization

Sparklines are an incredibly simple yet powerful way of visualizing data trends in as small a space as possible. You can immediately see a trend in the data which a plain number cannot provide. Sparklines should not include unnecessary detail - for example X and Y axis labels and keys. They should simply be used to display trends in related data.

When to use: To display the trend of a single set of data

When not to use: When more detail is needed. When the requirement is to show trends for multiple series of data.

Top tip: Great for showing trends over website visitors, page views, average time on site, revenue, costs, sales etc.

Liked this article? Learn more about dashboard design here:

Dashboard creation: The Post-it note approach

Two business dashboard books you must read before building your own

Stop! 5 things to consider before creating a business dashboard

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