We live in a world where thoughts, tools, and technologies that get things done faster are celebrated! Hence, when it comes to data-based decision making, dashboards are the messengers that report progress around the clock. Hence, dashboard design is extremely critical.
But what are dashboards? A dashboard is a graphical summary of the key information displayed in a quick glimpse. Think about it as a simple, crisp presentation of various metrics that communicate the health of the performing system. Dashboards exist in various forms and configurations in our day to day lives prevalent across cars, airplanes, gaming systems, security software, and so on. Dashboards use robust visualization techniques to collate data from multiple sources and display them in a meaningful way. Most frequently used dashboards manage to chunk related information together and create macro movements for analysis. Insights formulated from these metrics help the intended end-users make impactful decisions backed by reliable data trends and projections.
Tips for creating an exceptional dashboard design
As is the case for most things design, less is more. While creating a dashboard, it’s important to engineer a design that communicates the most crucial elements of the reported metrics most simply. A minimalist dashboard design is often the most preferred.
However, designing an effective dashboard can seem to be a herculean task simply because it’s not always clear which blocks of information should be prioritized over the others. And to prioritize you must, lest you risk turning this crisp visual snapshot into an overcrowded, cluttered mess. But don’t worry, many greats in the field of UX have tread this path before and left us with nuggets of design wisdom that we will share with you! Here are some trusted tips for dashboard design that we swear by:
Understand the motivation of the dashboard.
Different dashboards have different users. The purpose of the dashboard must be crystal clear at the strategy stage itself; this will help us cut through the clutter of data available and work only with what’s relevant for our end objective. To do this, ensure that you spend a reasonable amount of time with the end-user and understand which pieces of information are important to them. The motivation of an end-user should ultimately drive what is shown explicitly on the screen and what we display in the more detailed drill-down overview.
You should be able to categorize your design under one of the dashboards:
a) Operational dashboards: An operational dashboard is designed to provide a bird’s eye view of the operational performance of the day in real-time.
b) Analytical dashboards: Analytical dashboards draw insights from historic and current data trends to spot macro patterns that can prove to be useful for future projections and course corrections.
c) Strategic dashboards: These dashboards are usually formulated to help people in management roles track the behavior of key performance indicators in different time frames to compare outcomes productively and make decisions accordingly.
Use the correct visualizations for different kinds of data.
When it comes to design, one size rarely fits all. Information comes in all shapes and sizes and makes sense only when given the right context. This is why, it is of critical importance to pick different data visualization techniques for different types of data. Picking the wrong technique can make the data seem less impactful or relevant. Additionally, always define the relationship between the data points clearly to prevent misinterpretation. Chalk out the dataset development strategy beforehand and the minimum essential variables you need to demonstrate the accurate insight.
If you’re trying your hand at dashboard design for the first time, here are some tried and tested guidelines to keep in mind while selecting the data visualization techniques :
a) If time is variable in your data, always denote time in the X-axis.
b) If you want to investigate how different variables stack up against each other, use a horizontal or vertical chart to display columns in the ascending or descending order.
c) If you’re using a line graph, don’t display over 5 values.
d) If you’re using bar charts, don’t display over 7 values.
e) If you wish to display a percentage distribution, refrain from using over 5-6 variables. If there isn’t too much of a variation between these variable values, ie, the pie-chart will not be memorable.
Consistency is key
Recall is king (or queen!). In dashboard design, the best way to make the display effective is through repetition. If you’ve contrived a certain acronym for a certain terminology, make sure you stick to the same throughout the length and breadth of the dashboard. Stick to a certain nomenclature, style of fonts, color scheme, and even distribute white spaces evenly throughout the dashboard design. A consistent design just merges into the background and helps the user focus on what’s important. Inconsistency sticks out like a sore thumb and causes unnecessary distractions in the cognitive process.
Use the optimal grid structure
The human mind searches for structure and symmetry in design. An effective way to create this is by employing grids,- invisible lines that run throughout the screen to break up the entire content chunk into easy to chew, bite-size blocks. Grids assist with the overall structure and alignment of the dashboard by rationalizing the placement of different information aesthetically. This invisible skeleton can help you blend disproportionate elements, such as text, images, or videos, seamlessly. This system ensures that the content organization seems rational and doesn’t hurt the human eye. Grids are important tools in interactive design lend consistency and efficient organization of content for all multiple screens and devices.
Flow of Information
Most UX experts profess their unflinching love for the ‘F Type’ format while designing the flow of websites and dashboards. The ‘F type’ is nothing but the natural eye movement, which flows from left to right, while reading any material in print or online. This format is exceptionally popular in content-heavy dashboards, as it helps our eyes naturally segregate information in a glance. According to this now-common piece of wisdom, you must arrange content in the dashboard in the following ways to amplify the user experience:
- The top left corner is premium real estate on any screen! The human gaze lands on the top left corner first, hence, the most important elements of the dashboard design must be placed here.
- Key information must always flow from right to left.
- Readers always skim through the design from up to down; once they have finished reading a line, they will move down to the next.
- Minimize the need for back and forth, since this breaks the users’ chain of thought and causes distractions.
Cards help make dashboards responsive
Cards are the defining interactive elements in the dashboard design. Similar to their real-life counterparts that we encounter during board games, cards are rectangular of varying shapes that carry information in the form of text, images, buttons, and videos that engage users. Clicking on specific cards often leads to more drilled down lists of detailed information on the subject. Card-based design has a host of different benefits that are applicable across different types of dashboards. Let’s see why:
- Cards are responsive, clickable design elements that grab the users attention.
- They help in the visualization of data effectively across the breadth of the dashboard.
- Cards help create white space effectively which makes it easy on the eye to consume different forms of data.
- Cards are instrumental in breaking down content complexity across the board and arranging information into visually pleasing chunks.
- Cards are innately adaptable to different screen sizes and resolutions. If the screen size reduces, cards simply stack themselves to maintain an appealing user experience.
Use white space effectively
When it comes to visual appeal, effective use of white space can beautify the layout of the dashboard. You must use copious amounts of white space throughout the dashboard width to make the presentation of large amounts of data easier on the eye. White space or negative space, as it’s popularly referred to, is a design element that you can use to prioritize content, channel the user’s focus on the important areas and keep the overall screen clutter-free. This applies to card-based design as well. Space allocated for border padding helps maintain the visual appeal of the card. It gives the users a visual relief while they skim through the information and helps increase recall. Once you have finalized the initial layout of the various elements on the dashboard, ensure that you allocate a minimum of 15-20% of the total screen space for white space.
Show all key elements upfront
Context is a key component of the dashboard building process. As per Miller’s Law of UX design, the average person can accommodate only seven pieces of information in their working memory. This means that stretching this limit to any number over 9 can lead to a cognitive overload and make the user forget parts of what they have just seen. This is true of the content they see online as well. As a designer you must actively build the information architecture and define the content hierarchy based on prioritization of elements. To maintain a logical flow of information, you must decide the general flow of content throughout the dashboard. Since space on the dashboard screen as well as a person’s current memory is limited, useful elements must be prioritized and placed aesthetically on the screen for them to make sense to the end-user.
Use interactive data visualization elements to engage the users
A dashboard is a dynamic tool for data reporting and visualization. So we must ensure that the variables we use for this purpose are not static. Interactive data visualization elements in the dashboard can spark many micro-interactions that can help users gather better insights and make better decisions through data.