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Dashboard Design: What Makes an Effective KPI Dashboard?

The best designs are the ones you don’t think about. A product that is designed well doesn’t make you think about the structure or design itself - rather, it subconsciously facilitates ease of use. Data dashboards are a prime example. A well-designed TV dashboard draws your attention to the metrics themselves - you might not even notice the design.

This is in stark contrast to the five terrible dashboard designs we looked at recently.

Since the best dashboard designs work on the subconscious level, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what makes them so effective. But if we look beyond specific techniques for creating a dashboard, we’ll see three common themes.

Characteristics of the Best Dashboard Designs

Let’s explore these underlying characteristics of a well-designed dashboard.

1. It’s functional.

A well-designed dashboard must first and foremost be functional. Remember that a dashboard is “a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives, consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance,” as defined by Stephen Few, author of Information Dashboard Design.

Since the primary purpose of a dashboard is to clearly communicate your most important metrics, it’s only logical for the design to enhance this functionality. Any design elements that hinder the objective (such as complex visualizations, raw data or excessive amounts of color) should be discarded.

But designing for functionality extends beyond aesthetics. The best dashboard designs allow you to get all the metrics you need whether via native integration or the spreadsheet integration. The dashboard should be tailored to show progress made toward your key performance indicators (KPIs).

Is your dashboard functional? Does it help you focus on and achieve your goals?

Example SaaS Dashboard that’s functional. saas-dashboard-example

2. It’s intuitive.

As mentioned earlier, dashboards should be glanceable. In order for a dashboard to be understandable at a glance, it must be intuitive. This involves two aspects: 1) removing cognitive barriers (such as misleading pie charts, 3-D visualizations and unnecessary information) and 2) properly visualizing and labeling the metrics.

The most effective dashboards are designed so anyone in your team (or company - depending on the dashboard audience) can easily understand what the metrics represent and even further, what action needs to be taken. This could be as simple as adding clear, concise labels to your visualization (e.g. “Customers Added This Month” or “MRR This Month vs Goal”).

Or, perhaps you need to select the most actionable visualizations to make your dashboard more intuitive. Secondary metrics such as goals or comparison percentages bring your KPIs to life and inspire action. Researching benchmarks is a great way to determine what your goals should be.

A TV dashboard shouldn’t be cryptic and certainly shouldn’t require a manual. Once again, designing for intuition goes beyond aesthetics. An intuitive dashboard starts with clearly defined KPIs. Pro tip: it’s best to keep your metrics simple.

Is your dashboard intuitive? Can you take action based on the metrics shown?

Example Marketing Dashboard that’s intuitive. marketing-dashboard-example

3. It’s live.

An effective, well-designed dashboard is always-on and refreshes automatically (i.e. the data doesn’t have to be manually updated). It’s easy to take this one for granted, but without live updates on the dashboard, your metrics might as well be buried in an email attachment or spreadsheet.

A live TV dashboard hung prominently in the office makes it natural (and sometimes even fun!) for your team to glance at the KPIs throughout the day. This is where the magic of data communication happens - when team members focus on the most important objectives (indicated by metrics on the dashboard), unite to achieve them and discuss together how they can improve them.

Of course, ‘live’ can mean updating every 5 min, 10 min, 60 min or whatever timeframe best serves your team and your customers. The critical element is for the dashboard to update automatically at the frequency you choose. This allows the design to fade into subconscious while you and your team focus on the data.

Is your dashboard live? Are you able to focus on your KPIs without manually updating the data?

Example Support Dashboard that’s live. support-dashboard-example

Create Your Own Well-Designed KPI Dashboard

Now that you know what makes for an effective dashboard design, you’re ready to build your own! Need some inspiration? Check out these KPI dashboard examples.

Don’t have a dashboard yet? Try Geckoboard for free (no credit card required).

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