Data dashboards – Best practice and design principles

Elvin Mootoosamy March 25, 2023

In a recent article, we looked at Data Dashboards, what they are and the enormous benefits that their reporting features can bring to almost any business.

The emergence of interactive and innovative dashboard tools has made dashboard creation accessible to all businesses. However, to ensure optimal success, there are dashboard design principles and best practices to follow.

In this article, let’s explore 23 dashboard design principles that will give you the best chance of a comprehensive, user-friendly dashboard for your business needs – resulting in

–       clearly identified trends and patterns

–       more effective analysis

–       better decision-making

–       actionable insights

1. Consider your audience

When designing your dashboard, consider your audience. Know who will use it and for what purpose. Think about how users will access it and keep it simple. Design for your audience’s preferences and information needs, keeping the data clear and easily understandable. Adding ratios and trend indicators can provide additional value.

2. Determine your goals 

Focus on your dashboard’s purpose. Determine the metrics and data sets that will bring value. Think about

–       what you need to measure

–       who will measure it

–       the time interval

Having a clear understanding of the main goal of the reporting makes it easier to choose the right KPIs.

3. Choose relevant KPIs

Selecting the right KPIs is crucial for an effective dashboard design. KPIs help to shape the direction of the dashboard and display visual representations of relevant insights based on specific areas of the business. For example, in retail, tracking sales volume and average basket size helps identify areas that aren’t performing well.

4. Use your data to tell a story

Effective dashboard design requires building a data story – presenting data visually to convey your whole narrative. Efficient storytelling bridges the gap between technical and non-technical users. Designing the dashboard in advance, considering the audience and goals, helps to generate useful reports and avoids confusion.

5. Provide context

Without context, dashboard numbers may well appear meaningless. Always provide maximum information, including axis and measurement units, titles, and common comparisons, such as against a target or preceding period.

6. Don’t try to place all the information on the same page

Different individuals have different needs, so it’s better to create separate dashboards for each job position rather than cramming all the data into one dashboard. Using tabs or filters can split the information per theme or subject, but creating separate dashboards for each role is easier and minimises the need for filters and extensive drill-downs.

7. Select the right type of dashboard

Think about your dashboard’s analytical purpose. Design it for a specific user group to support them in decision-making. Identify and separate key information from inessential information to enhance users’ productivity. The five primary types of dashboard are

–       strategic

–       operational

–       analytical

–       platform-specific

–       tactical.

Your dashboards need to be responsive and fit all types of screens. If they’re to be displayed as a presentation or printed, make sure all key information is contained on one page.

8. Use the right type of chart

Selecting the right type of graph or chart is vital. Dashboards offer four types of charts and visualisations –

–       relationship

–       distribution

–       composition

–       comparison

Make sure you choose the one that fits the aim of the metric. For instance –

Line charts are ideal for displaying patterns of change over time.

Bar charts are useful for quickly comparing items in the same category.

Pie charts, although popular, can lack precision

Scatterplots are better suited for experienced users.

Gauge charts provide context and are ideal for monitoring sales targets.

Bubble charts are not recommended for dashboards due to their lack of precision and clarity.

9. Choose your layout carefully

Dashboard best practices include visually organising charts to enable easy access to information. Key information should be displayed first, in the upper-left corner, as most cultures read from left to right and top to bottom.

Start with the big picture and proceed with more detailed charts, grouping them by theme and placing comparable metrics next to each other. This enables users to quickly understand the dashboard without having to jump from one topic to another.

10. Prioritise simplicity

Use chart options sparingly and prioritise readability with clear labels and font choices. Use the data-ink ratio to keep non-relevant information out of your dashboard. Adding shadows can add depth, but use them judiciously. A simple dashboard design allows for a clear data story, making the main points immediately clear to the user.

11. Round your numbers

Rounding numbers is a good way to maintain simplicity. Rounding off numbers rather than using excess decimal points can be more visually effective. For instance, £925K is easier to take in than £925,088.25. Make sure you prioritise strategic information rather than every operational detail.

12. Be careful with colours – choose a few and stick to them

When it comes to colour, consistency is key. Stick to two or three colours, and play with gradients, avoiding highly saturated colours, which can look overwhelming. Use the same colour for matching items across all charts, and use graduated saturation to help users easily identify items in a sequence or group.

Be careful with “traffic light” colours. Red and green have pre-existing meanings for most people. Consider also accessibility – colour blindness affects approximately 8% of men and 0.5% of women, so using patterns and textures can help users differentiate between colours.

13. Don’t over-use real-time data

Avoid overusing real-time data in dashboards. Unless you’re tracking live results, most dashboards don’t need constant updating. Real-time data is useful for painting a general picture or trend. Implement smart alarms to notify of anomalies.

14. Be consistent with labelling and data formatting

Maintain clarity and consistency. Inconsistency can lead to confusion and errors, so ensure that labelling and formatting remain consistent across KPIs, tools, and metrics. Clear formatting and labelling are crucial to designing dashboards that work and extracting insights at a glance.

15. Use interactive elements

Drill-downs, click-to-filter, and time interval widgets are vital features to consider in dashboard design.

Drill-down allows users to dig deeper into dashboard information without overcrowding the design.

Click-to-filter uses dimensions of charts and graphs as temporary filters.

Time interval widgets enable the enhancement of individual time scales, making it easy to analyse data over days, weeks, months, or years.

These interactive elements keep the dashboard unburdened while providing all the necessary data.

16. Use animation options

Animation options give an additional neat visual impression to the dashboard. Select the desired element, assign an animation option, and enjoy simple yet effective automated movement. But don’t overuse it. Remember, simplicity is key.

17. Double up your margins

The principle of balance in dashboard design is crucial, and white space plays a pivotal role. This is the blank area between elements on a dashboard. These areas ensure that metrics and insights are balanced and easier to digest. Double margins surrounding the main elements of a dashboard will frame them with a balanced area of white space.

18. Optimise for multiple devices

Optimising dashboards for mobile or tablet is important for remote access. Trim excess information, optimise buttons for different hand sizes, and focus on the most important metrics. Test across devices to ensure functionality.

19. Consider the use in terms of exports vs digital

Dashboard design should consider future uses and exports. Optimise for printing bounds, fewer colours, and line styles to ensure readability. Assign viewer roles to control digital presentation and specify permissions. Consider both digital and print use cases when designing.

20. Keep graphical integrity 

Graphical integrity is a key dashboard design trend that refers to keeping the truth about data. Follow principles such as direct proportionality between the visual representation and numerical quantities. Avoid getting too creative with graphs. This can lead to misinterpretation.

21. White label and embed if you need to

Consider white-labelling and embedding dashboards into your application or intranet. This way, you can use your brand’s logos, colour schemes, and visual identity. Embedded business intelligence allows users to access analytical processes and data manipulation within existing systems and applications. These options provide flexibility in designing dashboards that work best for your business.

22. Avoid common data visualisation mistakes

Data visualisation has evolved into modern interactive software, allowing users to create stunning visuals. However, it has also brought negative side effects, such as common mistakes like incorrect calculations, wrong choice of visualisations, and too much data on a single chart. Following simplicity and colour theory at all times will help avoid common design mistakes.

23. Never stop evolving

Incorporate feedback and continuous improvement in your dashboard design process. Regular input from your team can improve layout, functionality, and balance of KPIs.

By knowing your audience and adjusting visuals accordingly, you can ensure optimum value. For example, if presenting an HR dashboard, get feedback from the team or stakeholders on employee performance, recruiting, or talent management. In a constantly evolving digital world, continuous improvement is necessary. Failure to do this will inevitably hinder your success. So, always keep evolving your designs.

Key Takeaways For Successful Dashboard Designs

A good data dashboard should be visually striking, balanced, user-friendly, and tailored to your goals and audience. It should serve a specific user group and provide actionable insights to aid decision-making. By following these 23 dashboard design principles, you can create effective visualisations that accelerate business growth and development.

Remember to gather feedback continuously and adapt your designs to changes in your business environment. With these best practices in mind, you’ll impress your audience and make your data analysis tasks easier.

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