A practical guide to better dashboard design

A practical guide to better dashboard design

A digital dashboard is a place where someone can view lots of data at once. If it’s done well, it helps users glean quick insights and informs data-based decisions. If not, it confuses or even bores.

These full-screen displays can feature charts, graphs, maps, lists, gauges, and more to help users quickly make sense of complex data. And with our help, you’ll know exactly which of these elements will best serve your users — and why.

How to create a dashboard your users will love

Dashboards shouldn’t show everything at once. Too much data looks cluttered and can overwhelm the user who ends up delaying or failing to act as a result. Instead, think of your dashboard like the blurb to a book: it’s a summary that gives you a top-level overview, which you can drill down on later.

As a general rule of thumb, a dashboard should do the following:

  • Show only the most important information
  • Draw attention where it’s needed
  • Help users understand the data so that it becomes an insight
  • Arrange the data so that it’s easier to respond to quickly
  • Show performance measures, trends, risky areas, progress, and stats

First, work out which type of dashboard you need

Analytical dashboard

Analytical dashboards display lots of complex data at once. They’re designed to help users make considered, insightful decisions. Below is an example from Google Analytics that would be used by a marketer, content manager, or copywriter.

Analytical dashboardSource: Moz.com

Operational dashboard

Like the real-life car version, an operational dashboard is designed to give users crucial, time-critical information, such as resources and status. They’re designed to help users make fast decisions. Below is an example of a dashboard used by the Philadelphia police department.

Source: arcgis.comSource: arcgis.com

Strategic dashboard

A strategic dashboard is a reporting tool. It helps the user keep track of KPIs — and as such, it’s often used by project managers or execs. It updates regularly but is less time-crucial than an operational dashboard. Think daily, rather than minute-by-minute.

Strategic dashboardSource: datapine.com

When you’re choosing your dashboard, think about your end-user. Project managers and high-level executives will probably need a strategic or analytical dashboard. Lower tier managers, as well as people in time-sensitive jobs — like emergency services phone operatives ⁠— will use an operational dashboard.

Choose your charts wisely

Dashboards feature charts and graphs. Why? Because displaying complex data visually makes it easier for the user to process. Before you dive in, it’s important to choose the right chart for the data you want to display. Pick the wrong one, and you could be making it harder for your user to interpret the information.

Below is a guide to the most common needs, along with the charts to match.

I want to…

See the relationship between things

  • Scatter chart
  • Network diagram
  • Bubble chart

See distribution

  • Scatter chart
  • Bell chart
  • Histogram
  • Mekko chart (or mosaic chart)

Compare things

  • Bar chart
  • Circular area chart
  • Column chart
  • Line chart (over time)

See the composition of data

  • Pie chart
  • Sunburst chart
  • Heat map
  • Waterfall chart (over time)
  • Stacked chart (over time)

Chart design best practice

When creating your chart, remember to make it clear and consistent. Dashboards contain lots of information, so you need to make that data as easy to interpret at a glance. Here are some general tips:

  • Colour-code your charts. Limit yourself to a few shades, and be consistent: for example, if you’re collecting demographic data for 18-30-year-olds, make sure every chart associated with this group is given the same color throughout. This makes it easier to find what you’re looking for.
    • Oh, and watch out for ‘traffic light’ colors (red and green especially). Most people associate these with ‘stop’ and ‘go’⁠—so only use them where this is appropriate, otherwise, you’ll confuse.
  • The same goes for naming conventions. Be consistent when you name your data.
  • Use professional software. When you’re making your charts, use the right tools for the job. Diagramming software is specifically created for charts and graphs, and many come with a library of templates to choose from, which saves you time designing from scratch. You can then export and integrate your chart into your dashboard design.
  • Keep your charts simple. Stay away from any designs that look like they were made in Clip Art. So no patterns, 3D effects, shadowing, or rainbow color schemes. Just no.

Next, create your dashboard layout

Once you’ve created your charts, it’s time to populate the dashboard with widgets, cards, and data tables. The first thing to consider is flow. Again, it’s important to put yourself in your reader’s shoes and think about how they’ll digest the information.

Start with a grid (wireframing software can help you here) and think about visual hierarchy.

Follow conventional layouts so your users know what to expect. Put headers above text and charts. Menus at the bottom, left or right. Highest priority information at the top, with lower priority data at the bottom or behind icons or drop-down menus.

Other factors that affect hierarchy (aka the order in which we view information) includes color, size, contrast, proximity, whitespace, alignment, repetition, and texture. You should use any or all of these techniques to draw attention to the most important elements of your dashboard first.

Tip: In American and Europe, our eyes naturally start in the top left-hand corner and scan right because that’s how we read. But bear in mind that international audiences may not be the same  —for example, in Japan, audiences read vertically, from top to bottom and right to left. If in doubt, turn to size and contrast to focus the eye, rather than layout.

Dashboard design best practice

Include lots of white space. The aim isn’t to cram as much info into your dashboard as possible⁠; it’s about clearly presenting select information. Use around 5-7 widgets to create your view⁠ — any more and you’ll overwhelm the user. If you do need to include more information, then….

Keep it minimal. Tuck extra information away behind drop-down or expandable menus, pop-ups, and accordions. And use more icons instead of headings. But also⁠…

Don’t rely too heavily on icons or scrolling dashboards. Keep in mind the point is to be able to see rich information at a glance. Adding too many interactive elements negates the benefits of having a dashboard⁠. And information hidden further down or behind an element is more likely to be ignored than anything that’s on the primary screen.

Treat your dashboard as a clothes designer would treat a fashion show: create everything you need, then refine and display the key pieces. Remember: distill, evolve, and prioritize.

Make sure your design is balanced. It needs to have a cohesive feel to it, with margins of an equal size and balanced negative space. Failing to do this creates unnecessary visual distractions, which makes the data harder to digest.

Personalize the content. Think about who your customer will be, and configure the dashboard so only the most relevant information for them is on display. If you have several different types of users, configure your dashboard so that it automatically re-prioritizes the information according to what’s relevant to each user.

And finally, put it all together

And now for the best part: this is where you pull everything together and start designing your different views. You can also adjust things like colors, font sizes, and texture to make the whole effect aesthetically pleasing and cohesive. While you’re populating and arranging everything, remember: tweak, edit, and evolve. Ask for feedback. And most importantly, prioritize simplicity over everything else.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).