Solid Dashboard Design Tips: Your Ultimate Guide

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Dashboards are used to display everything from business data to weather information and political trends. Software programs and websites offer turn-key solutions for creating your own dashboard design, and you’ll certainly find no shortage of companies you can contract with to do it for you. However, this is a task that you can do yourself if you have the time and the inclination. Follow these tips to create a dashboard that’s easy for users to understand. First, we’ll discuss the planning phase for your dashboard. Then we’ll move on to creating the framework. Finally, we’ll consider the data itself and how to best represent it.

The Basics

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When you are embarking on a dashboard design, it’s tempting to jump right in and start throwing together charts and graphs. However, starting with a plan will save you loads of time and frustration. There’s no shortage of corporate jargon to tell you in theory why a dashboard is helpful. You probably already know how important it is to set benchmarks and goals for the future. But it’s not enough to rest on buzzwords. You need to know why it matters to your project.

With a solid plan in place on the front end, the rest of the process is much easier. You also know what you’re working toward and how you’ll define success. These three topics should always be a part of your front-end planning:

  • Why do you want to create a dashboard design?
  • What kind of information do you want to display?
  • Who is the audience?

  Dashboard Design: Why A Dashboard?

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Why do you want to create a dashboard? That question has many possible answers, but some common ones are:

  • To guide in decision making
  • To set goals and priorities
  • To keep stakeholders informed
  • To establish timelines
  • To measure successes, failures, and progress
  • To have everyone working from the same set of data

  What Information To Include?

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Your dashboard doesn’t have to treat every piece of data equally. In fact, to create a dashboard that is user-friendly and valuable, you will have to prioritize some information. Focus on the data that is at the center of why you created the dashboard in the first place.

Before you decide to include a particular statistic, fact, or figure, ask your audience one question. “What will you do differently if you have this information in the dashboard?” If the answer is nothing, it’s probably okay to exclude that data in favor of something that drives more action. If that’s not possible, you can create an appendix of information that is good to know but not critical.

  Who Is The Audience?

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Who is the audience that will actually use your dashboard? Are they customers, employees, contractors, or someone else? Are they decision makers? If not, what is their role in the organization? What questions do they have over the course of a day that a dashboard can answer? Once you know what information they need, you will know where to focus your dashboard design.

Don’t try to modify your work flow to make it match the dashboard you come up with. The opposite should be true. Map out a typical day for your audience. At what points will they be consulting the dashboard? What devices do they typically use at that time of day? If your audience is largely mobile and working from a smartphone, then your dashboard should be optimized for that.

How comfortable is your audience with using the data in the dashboard? Do they want to see the details or just a high-level overview? Again, if you want your audience to use the dashboard regularly and reliably, tailor it to their level of understanding.

Consider the language you use in the dashboard. Make sure you don’t use abbreviations, initials, and terminology that your audience is not familiar with, and make sure you include definitions where they’re needed.

If your dashboard will be used by more than one group, you’ll have to decide if they can use the same one or if you need to develop multiple versions. If you can’t serve everyone equally, you may need to give the needs of some users a higher priority than others.

The Framework​

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Dashboards come in many formats, so you will want to carefully consider how to set yours up. Your primary concern with the design of the board is whether it’s easy for the user to understand. If it’s not easy to navigate and interact with, no one will use it, and you’ll have wasted your time and energy. Consider these four parts of designing your dashboard before beginning:

  • Why do you want to create a dashboard design?
  • What kind of information do you want to display?
  • Who is the audience?

  Format

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  • How often does the dashboard need to be updated? Daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly? More or less often? Electronic dashboards will always win out over printed paper if this is a factor.
  • Does appearance matter? Do you need a highly polished and professional look and feel? In some cases, appearance doesn’t matter if the dashboard is strictly for internal use. Paper documents usually have the aesthetic advantage over electronic dashboards.
  • If your audience is highly mobile, the format needs to be something that’s easily understandable at a glance on a mobile device.
  • Will the dashboard need to be fed data from a live source, like a stock market ticker for example? If so, how will you handle the connection between the two?
  • Do users need to be able to see all the details behind the charts and graphs or do they just need a high-level overview?
  • Will users interact with the dashboard, or just view it?
  • Do you need a format that allows users to comment on or collaborate on the data?

  Structure

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A dashboard’s structure usually falls into one of three categories, flow, relationships, or grouping. A dashboard that flows is one that depicts a sequence of events over time. A dashboard that depicts relationships shows the connections between the various elements. A grouping dashboard simply puts things together into categories or a hierarchy. Most data sets will fit nicely into one of those three possibilities.

  Goals And Objectives

Keep the end in mind when you’re determining the framework of your dashboard design. Don’t try to include so much information that it becomes unwieldly and your users don’t find it valuable. Strive to keep it streamlined and compact by breaking the data down to the individual questions it answers. Another strategy is to present the summary or overview and then give the user the ability to drill down to more specific data. Finally, you can use fonts, colors, headings, and other devices to guide attention to the most important pieces of data.

  Function

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As dashboard design evolved, some specific tools have been developed to make them more user friendly. Take advantage of these in your projects to keep your audience engaged and minimize frustration.

  • The ability to drill down from a high-level overview to see the details behind the numbers is helpful when users have different needs.
  • Filters allow users to see only those things that are most relevant to them.
  • Using comparisons like line and bar charts lets your audience evaluate performance over time or differences between groups.
  • Some dashboards include alerts when a particular data point reaches a critical level.
  • The ability to export data into a spreadsheet or even to a printer allows your audience to use the data in other ways unrelated to the dashboard. That helps the dashboard become a tool they use regularly and rely on.

Managing The Data

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When you’ve taken care of the basics, and you have the framework in place, you’re ready to start adding in charts, graphs, and other representations of the data. Give these areas careful consideration as you start to assemble your dashboard design.

  • What type of chart displays your data in the way your audience prefers to see it? That should be your primary consideration above all else.
  • Don’t shy away from using color and typography to draw attention to the most important information.
  • White space can be used effectively to keep information from running together and frustrating the eyes of your audience.
  • Leave off things like gridlines or three-dimensional appearances unless they’re absolutely necessary to communicate information. They tend to clutter up the chart and make it harder to reach significant data when incorporated into a dashboard.
  • Keep chart labels easy to read, abbreviating when necessary.

When you’ve done the hard work of planning, putting together the framework, and incorporating the data, you’re ready to share your dashboard design with your audience. Following the tips in this guide gives you much better odds of creating an instrument that your team can rely on and trust to guide them.