The rise of innovative, interactive, data-driven dashboard tools has made creating effective dashboards – like the one featured above – swift, simple, and accessible to today’s forward-thinking businesses.
In the digital age, there’s little need for a department of IT technicians, plus a qualified graphic designer, to create a dazzling data dashboard. However, if you want to enjoy optimal success, gaining a firm grasp of logical judgment and strategic thinking is essential – especially regarding dashboard design principles.
Dashboard design should be the cherry on top of your business intelligence (BI) project.
At this point, you have already tackled the biggest chunk of the work – collecting data, cleaning it, consolidating different data sources, and creating a mix of useful metrics. Now, it’s time for the fun part.
Here, you can get carried away by your creativity and design a pretty, dazzling, colorful dashboard.
Unfortunately, you can’t play around with it like the next Picasso. There are certain dashboard design best practices you should follow to display your data in the best way, making it easy to analyze and actionable.
Your business dashboard should be user-friendly and constitute a basic aid in the decision-making process. To help you on your journey to data-driven success, we’ll delve into 14 dashboard design principles that will ensure you develop the most comprehensive dashboard for your personal business needs.
Without further ado – let’s get started.
How To Create A Dashboard – The Top 14 Best Practices To Empower Your Business
These 14 definitive dashboard design best practices will bestow you with all of the knowledge you need to create striking, results-driven data dashboards on a sustainable basis.
Dashboard design principles are most effective as part of a structured process. Here, we’ll go over these dashboard design guidelines to ensure you don’t miss out on any vital steps.
1. Consider your end goal
Before you even begin putting any design elements into place, the first thing you need to do is consider your end goal.
To do so successfully, you need to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. The context and device on which users will regularly access their dashboards will have direct consequences on the style in which the information is displayed. Will dashboard be viewed on-the-go, in silence at the office desk or will it be displayed as a presentation in front of a large audience?
Remember to build responsive online dashboards that will fit all types of screens, whether it’s a smartphone, a PC or tablet. If your dashboard will be displayed as a presentation or printed, make sure it’s possible to contain all key information within one page.
For reference, here are the 4 primary types of dashboards for each main branch business-based activity:
- Strategic: A dashboard focused on monitoring long-term company strategies by analyzing and benchmarking a wide range of critical trend-based information.
- Operational: A business intelligence tool that exists to monitor, measure and manage processes or operations with a shorter or more immediate time scale.
- Analytical: These particular dashboards contain large streams of comprehensive data that allow analysts to drill down and extract insights to help the company to progress at an executive level.
- Tactical: These information-rich dashboards are best suited to mid-management and help in formulating growth strategies based on trends, strengths, and weaknesses across departments, such as in the example below:
Each dashboard should be designed for a particular user group with the specific aim of assisting recipients in the business decision-making process. Information is valuable only when it is directly actionable. The receiving user must be able to employ the information in his own business strategies and goals. As a dashboard designer who uses only the best dashboard design principles, make sure you are able to identify the key information, and separate it from the inessential one to enhance users’ productivity.
2. Don’t try to place all the information on the same page
The next in our rundown of dashboard design tips is a question of information. This most golden of dashboard design principles refers to both precision and the right audience targeting.
This may sound like a lot of work, but it’s actually easier than trying to cram all of the data that could be of interest to everyone onto a single display. When each role is provided with its own dashboard, the need for filters, tabs, selectors, extensive drill-downs is minimized, and it becomes much easier to instantly find the significant piece of information.
3. Choose relevant KPIs
For a truly effective KPI dashboard design, selecting the right key performance indicators (KPIs) for your business needs is a must.
Your KPIs will help to shape the direction of your dashboards as these metrics will display visual representations of relevant insights based on specific areas of the business.
Once you’ve determined your ultimate goals and considered your target audience, you will be able to select the best KPIs to feature in your dashboard.
To help you with your decision, we have selected over 250 KPI examples in our rich library for the most important functions within a business, industry, and platform. One example comes from the retail industry:
This retail KPI shows the total volume of sales and the average basket size during a period of time. The metric is extremely important for retailers to identify when the demand for their products or services are higher and/or lower. That way it is much easier to recognize areas that aren't performing well and adjust accordingly (create promotions, A/B testing, discounts, etc.).
4. Provide context
Without providing context, how will you know whether those numbers are good or bad, or if they are typical or unusual? Without comparison values, numbers on a dashboard are meaningless for the users. And more importantly, they won’t know whether any action is required.
Always try to provide maximum information, even if some of them seem obvious to you, your audience might find them perplexing. Name all the axes and add titles to all charts. Remember to provide comparison values. The rule of thumb here is to use comparisons that are most common, for example, comparison against a set target, against a preceding period or against a projected value. This is an effective dashboard design tip that you should always consider.
5. Make it as easy as possible
Concerning dashboard best practices in design, accessibility is one of the most important principles.
That said, you should never lose sight of the purpose of designing a dashboard. You do it because you want to present data in a clear and approachable way that facilitates the decision-making process.
If you make the charts look too complex, the users will spend even more time on data analysis than they would without the dashboard. Data analysis displayed on a dashboard should provide additional value. For example, a user shouldn’t need to do some more calculations on his own, to get to the information he was looking for, because everything he needs will be clearly displayed on the charts. Always try to put yourself in the user’s position.
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We can see in the example above, a sales dashboard provides the audience with data at their fingertips, mostly interesting for high-level executives and VPs.
Keep in mind what data will the user be looking for? What information would help him/her to better understand the current situation? If you have two relative values, why not add a ratio to show either an evolution or a proportion, to make it even clearer? An important point is also to add the possibility for the user to compare your number with a previous period. You can’t expect all users to remember what were the results for last year’s sales, or last quarter’s retention rate. Adding an evolution ratio and a trend indicator, will add a lot of value to your metrics, whether logistics KPIs or procurement, and make the user like you.
6. Choose your layout carefully
Dashboard best practices in design concern more than just good metrics and well-thought-out charts. Next step is the placement of charts on a dashboard. If your dashboard is visually organized, users will easily find the information they need. Poor layout forces users to think more before they grasp the point, and nobody likes to look for data in a jungle of charts and numbers. The general rule is that the key information should be displayed first – on the top of the screen, upper left-hand corner. There is some scientific wisdom behind this placement – most cultures read their written language from left to right and top to bottom, which means that people intuitively look at the upper-left part of a page first.
Another useful dashboard layout principle is to start with the big picture. The major trend should be visible at a glance. After this revealing first overview, you can proceed with more detailed charts. Remember to group the charts by theme with the comparable metrics placed next to each other. This way, users don’t have to change their mental gears while looking at the dashboard by, for example, jumping from sales data to marketing data, and then again to sales data.
7. Prioritize simplicity
Nowadays, we can play with a lot of options in the chart creation and it’s tempting to use them all at once. However, try to use those frills sparingly. Frames, backgrounds, effects, gridlines… Yes, these options might be useful sometimes, but only when there is a reason for applying them.
Moreover, be careful with your labels or legend and pay attention to the font, size, and color. It shouldn’t hide your chart, but also be big enough to be readable. Don’t waste space on useless decorations, like for example a lot of pictures.
8. Be careful with colors - choose a few and stick to them
Without a shadow of a doubt, this is one of the most important of all dashboard design best practices.
This particular point may seem incongruous to what we have said up to this point, but there are options to personalize and customize your creations to your preferences.
The interactive nature of data dashboards means that you can let go of PowerPoint-style presentations from the 90s. The modern dashboard is minimalist and clean. Flat design is really trendy nowadays.
Now, when it comes to color, you can choose to stay true to your company identity (same colors, logo, fonts) or go for a totally different color palette. The important thing here is to stay consistent and not use too many different colors – an essential consideration when learning how to design a dashboard.
You can choose two to three colors, and then play with gradients. A common mistake is using highly saturated colors too frequently. Intense colors can instantly draw users’ attention to a certain piece of data, but if a dashboard contains only highly saturated colors, users may feel overwhelmed and lost – they wouldn’t know what to look at first. It’s always better to tone most colors down. Dashboard design best practices always stress consistency when it comes to your choice of colors.
With this in mind, you should use the same color for matching items across all charts. Doing so will minimize the mental effort required from a users’ perspective, making dashboards more comprehensible as a result. Moreover, if you’re looking to display items in a sequence or a group, you shouldn’t aim for random colors: if a relationship between categories exists (e.g., lead progression, grade levels, etc.), you should use the same color for all items, graduating the saturation for easy identification.
Thanks to this, your users will only have to note that higher-intensity colors symbolize variable displays of a particular quality, item, or element, which is far easier than memorizing multiple sets of random colors. Again, creating a dashboard that users can understand at a glance is your main aim here.
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In the example above, manufacturing analytics are presented in a neat production dashboard, where a 'dark' theme is chosen after careful consideration of a few colors.
Our final suggestion concerning colors is to be mindful when using “traffic light” colors. For most people, red means “stop” or “bad” and green represents “good” or “go.” This distinction can prove very useful when designing dashboards – but only when you use these colors accordingly.
9. Don’t go over the top with real-time data
Next on our list of good dashboard design tips refers to insight: don’t overuse real-time data. In some cases, information displayed in too much detail only serves to lead to distraction. Unless you’re tracking some live results, most dashboards don’t need to be updated continually. Real-time data serves to paint a picture of a general situation or a trend. Most project management dashboards must only be updated periodically – on a weekly, daily or hourly basis. After all, it is the right data that counts the most.
10. Use the right type of chart
We can’t stress enough the importance of choosing the right data visualization types. You can destroy all of your efforts with a missing or incorrect chart type. It’s important to understand what type of information you want to convey and choose a data visualization that is suited to the task.
Line charts are great when it comes to displaying patterns of change across a continuum. They are compact, clear and precise. Line charts format is common and familiar to most people so they can easily be analyzed at a glance.
Choose bar charts if you want to quickly compare items in the same category, for example, page views by country. Again such charts are easy to understand, clear and compact.
Pie charts aren’t the perfect choice. They rank low in precision because users find it difficult to accurately compare the sizes of the pie slices. Although such charts can be instantly scanned and users will notice the biggest slice immediately, there can be a problem in terms of scale resulting in the smallest slices being so small that they even cannot be displayed.
Sparklines usually don’t have a scale which means that users will not be able to notice individual values. However, they work well when you have a lot of metrics and you want to show only the trends. They are rapidly scannable and very compact.
It’s also not that easy to decipher scatterplots. They lack precision and clarity as the relationships between two quantitative measures don’t change very frequently. Still, they can be used for an interactive presentation for knowledgeable users.
Most experts agree that bubble charts are not fit for dashboards. They require too much mental effort from their users even when it comes to reading simple information in a context. Due to their lack of precision and clarity, they are not very common and users are not familiar with them.
In summary, dashboard-centric charts and visualizations fall into four primary categories: relationship, distribution, composition, and comparison.
Depending on what you want to communicate or show, there is a chart type to suit your goals. Placing your aims into one of the 4 primary categories above will help you make an informed decision on chart type:
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11. Be consistent with labeling and data formatting
Number 11 on our list of tips on how to design a dashboard is focused on clarity and consistency. Above all else, in terms of functionality, the main aim of a data dashboard is gaining the ability to extract important insights at a swift glance. It’s critical to make sure that your labeling and formatting is consistent across KPIs, tools, and metrics. If your formatting or labeling for related metrics or KPIs is wildly different, it will cause confusion, slow down your data analysis activities, and increase your chances of making mistakes. Being 100% consistent across the board is paramount to designing dashboards that work.
12. Use interactive elements
Any comprehensive dashboard worth its salt will allow you to dig deep into certain trends, metrics, or insights with ease. When considering what makes a good dashboard, factoring drill-downs, click-to-filter, and time interval widgets into your design is vital.
Drill-down is a smart interactive feature that allows the user to drill down into more comprehensive dashboard information related to a particular element, variable, or key performance indicator without overcrowding the overall design. They are neat, interactive, and give you the choice of viewing or hiding key insights when you want rather than wading through muddied piles of digital information:
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Another interactive element, crucial in dissecting data, is the click-to-filter option. This feature enables users to utilize the dimensions of the charts and graphs within a dashboard as temporary filter values. In practice, that means that this filter will apply data to the whole dashboard just by clicking on a specific place of interest, like in the example below:
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This example shows how we filtered data just for Australia, for the month of February.
Looking at data over time is another crucial element to consider when designing a dashboard. The time interval widget will enable you to do just that. It's a neat feature that allows you to enhance individual time scales on various charts, meaning you can easily look at your data across days, weeks, months or years, as in the following example:
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These elements are of utmost importance in dashboard design since they help to keep the dashboard unburdened of too many elements while the interactivity enables to have all the data needed. For more details and complete scale of the top interactivity features, you can check our article on interactive dashboards.
13. Double up your margins
One of the most subtle yet essential dashboard guidelines, this principle boils down to balance. White space – also referred to as negative space – is the area of blankness between elements featured on a dashboard design.
Users aren’t typically aware of the pivotal role that space plays in a visual composition, but designers pay a great deal of attention to it because when metrics, stats, and insights are unbalanced, they are difficult to digest. You should always double the margins surrounding the main elements of your dashboard to ensure each is framed with a balanced area of white space, making the information easier to absorb.
14. Never stop evolving
Last but certainly not least in our collection of principles of effective dashboards – the ability to tweak and evolve your designs in response to the changes around you will ensure ongoing analytical success.
When designing dashboards, asking for feedback is essential. By requesting regular input from your team and asking the right questions, you’ll be able to improve the layout, functionality, look, feel, and balance of KPIs to ensure optimum value at all times.
The digital world is ever-evolving. Change is constant, and the principles of effective dashboards are dictated by a willingness to improve and enhance your design efforts continuously. A failure to do so will only hinder the success of your efforts.
So, never stop evolving.
“There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and WOW! Wow is the one to aim for.” – Milton Glasner, world-renowned graphic designer
So, what makes a good dashboard? An effective data dashboard should be striking yet visually balanced, savvy yet straightforward, accessible, user-friendly, and tailored to your goals as well as your audience. All of the above dashboard design tips form a water-tight process that will help you produce visualizations that will enhance your data analysis efforts exponentially.
Every dashboard you create should exist for a focused user group with the specific aim of helping users tap into business decision-making processes and transform digital insights into positive strategic actions.
Information is only valuable when it is directly actionable. Based on this principle, it’s critical that the end-user can employ the information served up by a dashboard to enhance their personal goals, roles, and activities within the business.
By only using the best and most balanced dashboard design principles, you’ll ensure that everyone within your organization can identify key information with ease, which will accelerate the growth, development, and evolution of your business. That means a bigger audience, a greater reach, and more profits – the key ingredients of a successful business.
You can also check out more live dashboard examples and explore a complete library of dashboards within various functions, industries, and platforms.
And when you're ready, put your newly-acquired dashboard principles into practice and boost your business prospects! Start your free trial with datapine today!