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10 Dashboard Design Principles & Best Practices To Enhance Your Data Analysis

great dashboard example following our dashboard design principles

With the availability of innovative dashboard software, creating great dashboards like the one above hasn’t become a no-brainer. Yes, you don’t need a department of IT guys plus a graphic designer to create one, but you still need some good judgement and strategic thinking when it comes to dashboard design principles.

Dashboard design is supposed to be the cherry on top of your BI project. You have already done the biggest part of the work – collected data, cleaned it, linked different data sources and created some useful metrics. Now is the “fun” part, where you can get carried away by your creativity and create a pretty, colorful dashboard. Well, no, you can’t play around with it like the next Picasso. There are certain dashboard design best practices you must follow to display your data in the best way, this means to make your data easy to analyze and actionable. Your dashboard should be user-friendly and constitute a basic aid in the decision-making process. Users must simply enjoy using it and consider it an essential tool. Creating such dashboard is not a mission impossible if you follow our 10 best dashboard design principles. All our tips are based on BI consulting experience we have been collecting for years as we have learned dashboard design the hard way.

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1. Use the right type of chart

We can’t stress enough the importance of the right choice of data visualizations. You can ruin everything with a missed chart. 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.

2. Don’t try to put all information on the same page

The next one in our list of golden dashboard design principles refers to both precision and the right audience targeting. Don’t create one-size-fits-all dashboards and don’t cram all the information into the same page. Think about your audience as a group of individuals who have different needs – sales manager doesn’t need to see the same data as marketing specialist or HR department. If you really want to put all the data on a single dashboard, you can use tabs to split the information per theme or subject, making it easier for users to find information. For example, you can split a marketing dashboard into sections referring to different parts of the website like product pages, blog, terms of use, etc. However, instead of using different tabs, filters, selectors and drill-down lists and making the user endlessly click around, it’s better to simply create one dashboard for each job position. 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 a few colors and stick to them

When it comes to color, you can choose to stick to your company identity (same colors, logo, fonts) or go for a totally different color palette. The important thing is to stay consistent and not use too many different colors. You can choose 2-3 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 the consistency when it comes to the choice of colors. Use the same color for the same item on all charts. It reduces the mental effort on the users’ side and makes dashboards more comprehensible. Moreover, if you want to display items in a sequence or a group, don’t just go for random colors. If there is a relationship between categories (e.g. lead progression, grade levels etc.), you can make it easier for users by using the same color for all items, but graduating the saturation. Users then only have to remember that higher-intensity colors symbolize that the variable displays more of a certain quality, which is easier than memorizing multiple random colors. Again, what we are trying to achieve is creating a dashboard that can be understood by the user as quickly as possible. Our last suggestion when it comes to colors is to be careful with the use of “traffic light” colors. For most people, red means “stop” or “bad” and green means “good” or “go.” This can be very useful when designing dashboards, but only when you use these colors accordingly.

4. Make it as easy as possible

Don’t 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 an 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. What data will the user be looking for? What information would help him 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 KPIs and make the user like you.

5. Good layout choices

Dashboard design best practices 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.

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6. Provide context

How will you know whether those numbers are good or bad, or whether they are normal or unusual if there is no context? 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.

7. Make it simple

 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 fun and creative

This is one important of the dashboard design best practices. That point seems to stand in contradiction to what we have already said. However, when we stressed that the colors should be subdued and the layout well-thought-out, we didn’t mean that your dashboard should look boring. On the contrary, we want you to let go of Power Point style presentations from the 90s. The modern dashboard is minimalist and clean. Flat design is really trendy nowadays.

9. Don’t go over the top with real-time data

Don’t overuse real-time data. In some cases information displayed in too much detail can only be a distraction. Unless you’re tracking some live results, most dashboards don’t need to be constantly updated. They serve as a picture of a general situation or a trend. Most project 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. Consider how your dashboard will be viewed

Last but not least of these dashboard design best practices, is to put yourself in your audience’s shoes. The context and device on which users will regularly accesses 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 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 can be contained within one page.

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.

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Get our free checklist to build high quality business dashboards.

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