Building an effective dashboard according to best practices for dashboard design involves a combination of efforts such as gathering requirements, defining KPIs and creating a data model. A poorly-designed dashboard could prevent the user from gaining the valuable insights he or she needs by not conveying useful information or making the data less comprehensible than it originally may have been.

A well-designed dashboard design excels in these areas:

Making the complex simple: an abundance of data changing all the time and servicing different analytical needs and questions.

Telling a clear story: the ability to connect the data to its context in the organization to answer the necessary questions. The visual layout plays a huge role in this.

Expressing the meaning of the data: choosing data visualizations that properly convey the information you want to extract from it while correctly representing the data.

Revealing details as needed: taking into account the idea of progressive disclosure (sequencing information and actions across several screens so as not to overwhelm users with too much content at once)

Keeping in mind that each dashboard has its own requirements, limitations and goals, certain guidelines can be followed to help ensure the best possible user experience.

1. The 5 Second Rule
The dashboard should be able to answer the most frequently asked questions at a glance while providing the most relevant information to the user in about 5 seconds. Of course, further insights may be obtained by drilling down in most cases, but the most important metrics should be immediately visible from the screen.

2. Logic Layout: The Inverted Pyramid
Business Intelligence dashboards are about telling a story. The story should follow some kind of organizing principle, such as the inverted pyramid. This entails keeping the most significant and high-level insights at the top, the trends, which give context to these insights, underneath them and any high granularity details that you can then drill down into and further explore at the bottom.

3. Minimalism: Less is More
While it may sound like a great idea to cram as many details as possible into a dashboard design to provide a fuller picture, cognitive psychology tell us that the human brain can only comprehend around 7+-2 at one time. This is the amount of items that should be in a dashboard. Each dashboard should contain no more than 5-9 visualizations. More than that will create clutter and visual noise, detracting from the dashboard’s initial purpose.

4. Choosing the Best Data Visualization
Visualizations should serve a specific purpose and convey facts more effectively than in a basic table format.

It is important to consider what type of information is needed to be conveyed through the visualization to better understand how it should be shown:

  • Relationship – connection between two or more variables (scatter graphs, bubble graphs, network diagrams)
  • Comparison – compare two or more variables side by side (column graphs, bar graphs, line graphs)
  • Composition – breaking data into separate components (stacked column graphs, heat maps, area graphs, waterfall graphs, donut graphs, pie graphs)
  • Distribution – range and grouping of values within data (scatter graphs, histograms)

What to Avoid
Certain types of graphs are best to avoid altogether. While gauges were once a popular choice, they take up too much real estate and display very little information. 3D graphs and overstyled charts have lower readability, distract the user from the data and are difficult to develop.

A few questions to help determine the best type of graph to use are:

  • How many variables should be displayed in a single graph?
  • Will variables be displayed over a period of time, or among items or groups?
  • How many data points will need to be displayed for each variable?

A Clear Framework
It is also important to maintain clear and consistent naming conventions as well as consistent date formatting throughout the dashboard design. That also means truncating large values where possible. The biggest benefit of using a clear framework is data consistency, which allows a user to extract the necessary information at a glance.

Logical Grouping
A well designed dashboard will ensure that data is displayed in logical groups. For example, grouping Financial KPIs together while having another group for the Sales/Marketing graphs.

Proper Use of White Space
White space, the space between tables, charts and filters, is a vital part of any dashboard. Ensuring there is proper white space between items will make the interface look less cluttered, improve readability and guide the user’s eyes, creating a sense of hierarchy in the dashboard. It also creates a balanced layout, adding a level of clarity and sophistication to the dashboard.

Too Many Colors
Color, shape and size all convey meaning and can be interpreted very quickly if used well within a dashboard. If there are too many competing elements, it will become very confusing to the user. Too much color, use of gradients or other unnecessary design elements get in the way of easy interpretation. Limiting these will create an experience that allows the user to quickly access and understand the necessary data in the dashboard.

While there are many more items to be discussed which can help create a better user experience for a dashboard, these are some of them and they will help enhance the delivery of information to the user, empowering them with the data they need at a glance in a strong and impactful way.

Happy designing!