Best Practices

The human eye perceives information visually rather than as blocks of data. Unlike computers, humans are at the mercy of their eyes’ natural tendencies. The way humans perceive information is affected by several factors that contribute to how hierarchies are ranked according to the content within the layout. The factors that affect hierarchy include:

  1. Size: The larger the element, the more attention it attracts, especially when compared to smaller elements.
  2. Color: Bright colors are more likely to draw attention to themselves than drab colors.
  3. Contrast: Dramatically contrasting colors will catch the eye more than slightly contrasting colors. Contrast helps you show what’s more important in your design. Everything is relative.
  4. Alignment: Alignment can create order between design elements. For example, placing content and then a sidebar column creates a priority for the reader. We expect important information (such as login buttons) to be in the top right-hand corner of a page.
  5. Repetition: Repeating styles can give the viewer a sense that content is related.
  6. Proximity: How closely design elements are placed together tells users how likely they are to be related.
  7. Whitespace: the space around content (it can be any color, not just white) can be used to draw attention to certain pieces of content. It makes information easier for the eye to digest, and it lets the eye focus-in on each area of information.
  8. Texture and style: The use of textures and styles can help prioritize content, too. Like fonts, they can set the tone of the design.

14 Principles of Data Visualization

"Design is intelligence made visible."
Alina Wheeler

Start at the end

Before putting any design elements in place, think about the end goal here. What are the most important elements that need to be showcased? Who is the audience? To build successful dashboards, a designer needs to put himself or herself in the audience’s shoes. The context and device on which users will regularly access their dashboards will have a direct consequence on the style in which the information is displayed.

Less is more

The Bauhausian concept that ‘Less is More’, i.e., the notion that simplicity and clarity leads to good design, is a good motto to follow. Frames, backgrounds, effects, gridlines might be good options at one time or another, but there should always be a solid reason for their use. Also, designers should be careful with labels and/or legends and they should pay attention to the font, size, and color, which should be big enough to be readable, but they shouldn’t overwhelm any charts or visuals.

Charts make the dashboard

Asking the right questions will form the foundations for choosing the right types of visualization for your project, strategy, or business goal. Information that displays clearly on one type of chart can be lost or muddied on another. A dashboard can be destroyed, and hours of work lost with a missing or incorrect chart type. It’s important to understand what type of information you want to convey and then choose a data visualization tool/chart that is suited to the task.

Double up your margins

Users aren’t typically aware of the pivotal role that space plays in a visual composition, but designers pay a great deal of attention to it because when metrics, stats, and insights are unbalanced, they are difficult to digest. Designers should always double the margins surrounding the main elements of their dashboard to ensure each is framed with a balanced area of white space, making the information much easier to absorb.

Use interactive elements

Any comprehensive dashboard worth its salt will allow users to easily dig deeper into certain trends, metrics, or insights. When considering what makes a good dashboard, factoring drilldowns, pop-up windows, click-to-filter, and time interval widgets into the design is imperative. Drilldown is a smart interactive feature that allows the user to drill down into more comprehensive dashboard information related to an element, a variable, or a KPI without overcrowding the overall design.

Don't clutter

Dashboards have limited real estate. One-size-fits-all isn’t the practicing philosophy to use. When designers understand who the right targeted audience should be KPIs, images, and charts can be customized to display certain information for that set audience. Information shouldn’t be crammed onto a page if it can be spread out. Designers should think of their audience as a group of individuals with unique needs.

Be cautious with colors

Without a shadow of a doubt, color use is one of the most important best practices in dashboard design. When it comes to color, designers can choose to stay true to their company identity (same colors, logo, fonts) or go for something completely different. The important thing here is consistency and using a limited palette is usually preferable. Designers should choose two to three colors, and then experiment with gradients. Designers should also use the same color for matching items across all charts.

Keep it simple

Designers should never lose sight of the purpose of creating a dashboard. Everything is done to present data in a clear and approachable manner that facilitates the decision-making process. If 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 additional value not motivate a user to find information elsewhere.

Consistency is key

In terms of functionality, the main aim of a data dashboard is to give the user the ability to quickly extract important information. It’s critical to make sure the labeling and formatting is consistent across KPIs, tools, and metrics. If the formatting or labeling for related metrics is wildly divergent, users will be confused, data analysis will be slowed, and the chances of making a mistake increases. Being 100% consistent across the board is paramount when designing dashboards that work.

Provide context

Designers should always try to provide maximum information to the user. Without the right context, numbers that might seem extremely obvious to some could be perplexing to others. All the axes should be named, and titles should be added to all charts. Comparison values should also be included. The rule of thumb here is to use comparisons that are common, for example, comparison against a set target, or a preceding period, or a projected value. Context is key. 

Choose relevant KPIs

For a truly effective dashboard design, selecting the right key performance indicators (KPIs) for your business needs is essential. KPIs help shape the direction of the dashboards as these metrics will display visual representations of relevant insights based on specific areas of the business’ operation. Once the ultimate goals of the dashboard have been determined and the target audience selected, choosing the best KPIs to feature in the dashboard should be simple.

Choose layouts carefully

Dashboard design best practices concern more than just good metrics and well-thought-out charts. The second step is the placement of charts on a dashboard. If your dashboard is well organized visually, the information will be easy to find. Poor layout forces users to think too much. Start with the big picture. The major trend should be visible at a glance. After this revealing first overview, designers can proceed with more detailed charts.

Real time @ right time

Real-time data can be seductive. Who doesn’t want the latest information when making important business decisions? But often the cost to attain these real-time data feeds can outweigh their value and be confusing. In some cases, information displayed in too much detail only leads to distraction. Unless the business is tracking live results, most dashboards won’t need to be updated continuously.

Keep evolving

When designing dashboards, asking for feedback is essential. By requesting regular input from the users and asking the right questions, designers will be able to improve the layout and functionality of their KPIs to ensure optimum value. Change is constant. The principles of effective dashboards are dictated by a willingness to continuously improve. Humanity never stands still, especially in design. Collectively, we've been doing this for 44,000 years. And we're certainly not stopping in 2021.


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