- 01/14/2015


The 5 Principles of Great Dashboard Design

What makes a truly great dashboard? It’s a surprisingly tricky question, as exceptional dashboard design is much easier to recognize than it is to describe. It’s not just a matter of having visually pleasing charts and graphs to work with, and important-looking numbers organized in tidy boxes. It’s a matter of the right data sets being presented in a seamless, instantly graspable manner.

And here’s the kicker: A dashboard design that works perfectly for a marketing team is often a frustrating, unintuitive one for a web-traffic analysis team. To a casual observer, these two dashboards may even look virtually identical. Seemingly tiny tweaks to what data is shown and how it is presented can make all the difference between a great dashboard and an infuriating one.

Creating a great dashboard is a matter of understanding a handful of fundamental concepts, and then applying them to the specific needs of your specific team’s goals. It’s easier than you may think.

1. Show the right data to the right audience. The details that your social media expert needs to do their job – Twitter follows, Facebook likes, blog mentions, link clickthroughs – are little more than trivia to your direct sales team, your inventory manager and your CEO. At the same time, mobile email open rates might be a cross-company indicator if that’s one of the few channels the  business uses to reach new customers. A great dashboard presents the best relevant data to the people who most need to see it.

2. Use the right dashboard structure for the proper context. The dashboard of a car and 172-point inspection by a car mechanic are very different things. One shows you the basic information you need while you’re operating the vehicle – gas gauge, speed, warning lights – the other informs you of long-term issues like when you’ll need a tune-up and how long your brakes will last. Both are filled with relevant details, but are only useful in specific contexts. The same is true with business dashboards.

Broadly speaking, most dashboards will work with data relevant to the day-to-day operation of a specific job – tracking sales leads or maintaining a website, for instance – or they will be used to keep track of long-term trends and key performance indicators.

3. Display the most useful data, and make it easy to find. Not all information is equal, and the most important information should be displayed as prominently as possible. By scanning the contents of a dashboard, the user should be given the most important details in an order that makes sense. Assuming the user comes from a Western language background, these details should be arranged to flow from the left side of the screen to the right, and start over on a new row. If arranged correctly, the user’s eye will flow naturally from one topic to the next, preventing them from having the frustration of looking for a needed piece of data.

4. Stick to the important things, and keep it tidy. Most dashboard software suites have a seemingly unlimited palette of widgets, charting tools, indicators and impressive-looking graphs to work with. Even if you know that there are only five or six things the user actually needs to see on the dashboard, it’s tempting to include less vital information simply because you can. This kind of clutter is, at best, needlessly distracting. It’s better to have a handful of truly relevant details surrounded by whitespace than a sea of mostly irrelevant details making the important stuff harder to find at a glance. If you don’t absolutely need it on the dashboard, cut it.

5. If you don’t need real-time data, don’t use it. Most dashboards don’t need to be updated moment to moment. They serve as a snapshot of a general state of a department’s status, or of the overall state of an aspect of a business. Unless you’re tracking the results of a live promotion on Twitter, seeing real-time data is more likely to become a distraction than a meaningful tool. Some project dashboards may only need to be updated weekly, for instance, while others need to be refreshed on a daily or hourly basis. As long as your team has accurate data, you’ll be in good shape.

By sticking to these simple principles, you’ll be able to create dashboards that are both instantly useful and easily to follow. Users won’t have to hunt for the right content to understand what trends are taking place, or find themselves confused by a poorly arranged layout. In a matter of seconds, they can see everything they need to. And that’s the hallmark of great dashboard design.