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How to avoid the most common mistakes in dashboard design

Designing a TV dashboard is an evolution with many iterations as you adjust the metrics and goals to what’s most relevant for your growing company. It’s a learning process that, like most things, is rare to get just right the first time. But thanks to the lessons of other experienced dashboarders, it’s possible to avoid the most common dashboard design mistakes.

We’ll take a look at what these mistakes are along with practical advice for building beautiful and effective dashboards.

Mistake 1: Displaying too many metrics

When displaying a dashboard on a TV there’s a hard limit on how much information will fit. A TV dashboard has limited real estate. While there isn’t an exact maximum number of visualizations or metrics, bear in mind that every additional metric you add detracts emphasis from what’s already there.

Be as ruthless as you can. Ask yourself: Does this metric really need to be on the dashboard? Does this metric trigger action?

“When it comes to building a dashboard, less is more. Just try to pick a few things that have an impact on the business and then focus on the actions that improve the values. It’s a focus thing. When you have less information, it’s a signal to your team that these are actually the important values for our business.” - Niklas Slotte, Founder and CEO of Sayduck

The CEO of Komet Sales, Alejandro Perez, came up with an incredibly vivid illustration to help evaluate exactly which metrics to put on his dashboard.

“Imagine if every 1x1 visualization is going to cost you a hundred bucks. Which ones will you put on the dashboard? You’ll be much more selective. My mistake when I got started was to get excited and think, “I’ve got all this real estate - I’ve got to fill it up!” But that just creates confusion because as people look at the dashboard they see all these metrics, all these different things and they go nuts. It’s much better to start small and build up the number of metrics slowly.” - Alejandro Perez, CEO of Komet Sales

If you’ve determined that each metric is truly essential but the dashboard is still crowded, consider splitting the data into separate dashboards.

Mistake 2: Randomly positioned metrics and lack of hierarchy

As with any other piece of real estate, making efficient use of space is important. This is especially true when it comes to the location and hierarchy of your metrics on a TV dashboard. By hierarchy, we’re referring to the size and prominence of a visualization - the larger the visualization and the closer it is to the top/left, the greater the prominence or emphasis it will have.

When it comes to location, both the actual (top-left, middle, bottom-right, etc.) and relative (metric groupings) location of visualizations matter. Because we read left to right, top to bottom in the Western world, the most valuable space on a dashboard is the top-left.

Are your metrics stuck in the same (random) order that you added them to the dashboard? Is your most important information buried in the middle?

Avoid the chaos of randomly positioned metrics by prioritizing the data in order of importance. Then adjust the size and location of your most critical metrics so they’re larger than the rest and positioned towards the top-left.

example-ecommerce-dashboard Example Ecommerce Dashboard with the most important metric larger and positioned top-left.

Another handy tip for combatting a random layout is to group metrics related to the same thing together. Or if you have the same metric for different things (i.e. trial conversion rate and customer conversion rate), group those together. This makes it easier for a viewer to find what they’re interested in seeing.

example-adwords-dashboard Example Adwords Dashboard with related metrics grouped together.

Mistake 3: Using unclear titles

Titles might seem like an afterthought when building a dashboard, but they’re actually a critical part in conveying your data clearly. Having the right metrics on your dashboard isn’t very useful if people don’t know what the metrics are.

Avoid this common mistake by using pithy and consistent visualization titles that make it easy for people to understand the metrics.

“The titles on your dashboard must have meaning so people can quickly understand what the metrics are. Keep the title true to the metrics. Don’t just call it ‘Tickets’, call it ‘Tickets on mobile platform today’. Titles can make all the difference in making a dashboard useful and understandable.” - Lucas Pereira Lima, Business Intelligence Developer at Clickbus.com

You can also minimize title repetition by grouping similar metrics together (as mentioned and shown above).

Mistake 4: Different visualizations, just because

One of the most common misconceptions about building a dashboard is that you need lots of different visualizations in order to make it more exciting. It’s tempting to use a bar chart just because you’ve already got a couple of line charts.

“Dashboards are not an appropriate venue for artistic impression.” - Stephen Few

Resist this temptation. Superficially, the dashboard might look more interesting, but variety for the sake of variety isn’t actually helpful for clearly communicating data.

Be true to your metric and use the visualization that’s most appropriate. (Not sure what is appropriate for the metrics you have? Take a look at this handy flowchart for choosing the best visualization.)

Remember, simple is always better.

Mistake 5: Unnecessary elements with or around the data

Unnecessary color, text, images, or other decoration on a dashboard is distracting at best and at worst makes the data illegible. (A whole article could be devoted to elegant and efficient data visualizations, but for this post a quick overview will suffice.)

The technical term for extraneous elements on a dashboard is data-ink ratio. Ideally, a dashboard should have the minimum amount of ink (this could be text, color, images, textures, etc.) required to clearly display the data.

This means avoiding unnecessary decorations and removing anything on your dashboard that doesn’t have a purpose.

A good practice to keep your dashboard clean is to periodically take inventory of everything that’s displayed by asking the question: “What purpose does this have?”

Summary: Establish good dashboarding habits

  • Treat your dashboard like high-value real estate by displaying only essential metrics that inspire action.
  • Group similar metrics together and create an obvious hierarchy for your most important metrics by using size (larger = more important) and position (top-left = highest priority).
  • Use pithy and consistent visualization titles so all viewers understand what the metrics are.
  • Select the most appropriate visualization for your data, even if that means less variety.
  • Remove unnecessary distractions and decorations from your dashboard. Only keep the elements that serve a (useful) purpose.
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