Dashboard Design

This guide showcases seven key best practices for dashboard design to help you create better dashboards. Dashboards are essential tools in transforming your data into business value, but no single approach works best for every purpose.

7 Dashboard Design Best Practices

Well-designed dashboards use data to tell a story for a specific audience. There’s no simple trick or single approach that will achieve this goal for every purpose and audience. But following the best practices described below can help you succeed for your specific needs.

1. Know Your Audience

The first critical step in designing your dashboard is to develop a user persona that defines who your audience is, what information they need, and how they will use this information. Some dashboards have broad distribution but most are tailored to specific people or roles such as executives, managers or analysts. These roles have very different needs and expectations when it comes to data.

For example, an analyst will want many data views and the ability to dig into the data to explore more deeply. In contrast, a busy operations manager needs to know at a glance if there are significant deviations from the norm that require immediate action.

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2. Choose the Right Type of Dashboard Design

Once you have defined the audience and purpose for your dashboard, make sure to choose the type of dashboard that aligns. There are four main types of business intelligence dashboards based on their purpose: strategic, operational, tactical and analytical. Below we discuss the main attributes and give dashboard examples of each type as inspiration.

Executive Dashboards

These dashboards allow executives to track key performance indicators (KPIs) over time. The purpose here is to analyze bigger-picture trends over longer time periods rather than focusing on immediate, short term actions.The example below shows how hospital executives can use an executive dashboard to visualize strategic KPIs relevant to management, patient experience, and staff dynamics.

An executive kpi report monitors long-term company strategy.

1. High-level KPIs give executives a big-picture view of critical success factors.
2. Predictions indicate whether key indicators are performing better or worse than expected.
3. Time-based trends provide a view of overall activity, and can be shared with higher-level management as needed

Operational Dashboards

The purpose of operational dashboards is to quickly tell the user what’s happening in the moment and to highlight when and where critical issues occur. Use this type of dashboard for time-sensitive information and to highlight deviations in the data so that users can take action.For example, a police force can use an operational dashboard to track the location and volume of police reports and provide a snapshot of incidents teams should be prepared to deal with.

1. Heatmaps make it easy to quickly spot areas where activity levels are high.
2. Log tracking over time helps teams predict what time of day workloads will be highest.
3. Log types provide a quick snapshot of the kind of incidents teams should be prepared to deal with.

Tactical Dashboards

Tactical dashboards help users track progress toward specific goals or time periods. Users should be able to click on the dashboard to quickly and easily drill in to the data on the dashboard itself to explore problems and opportunities.In this example, a software company can use a tactical dashboard to make faster, better informed decisions with information on browsing and purchase behavior, interactions across digital channels, and more.

1. Key data points are enhanced by trending information; how much this number changed from the prior month.
2. More detailed insights can be found by drilling down into additional data.
3. A day-to-day view allows teams to look more closely at activity and what caused it.

Analytical Dashboards

Analytical dashboards are typically created and used by analysts as an interactive tool to help them better support business people in analyzing trends and identifying issues. They usually have minimal graphic elements and instead strive to present as many data views as possible. Here especially, the user needs to be able to drill down into additional data for more detailed analysis.The example below showcases how a CPG company can use an analytics dashboard to track trends, forecast market share, and compare sales against competitors.

1. Viewing market valuation over time helps guide business decisions.
2. Forecasts can be used alongside other data to drive business planning and resourcing.
3. Comparison data shows sales versus key competitors in an easy-to-read, side-by-side format.

3. Identify Your Key Metrics

Your audience may tell you they want “everything” and that every data point is important. Your job in dashboard design is to help them choose the essential metrics to best help them align behaviors, refine strategy, and measure success. For example, a marketing team that’s rewarded based on the number of people reached needs different metrics than one rewarded for qualified leads. When in doubt, stick to the 80/20 rule. Don’t try to account for everything but instead focus on the 20% that’s most strategic— and that can deliver 80% of the value.

4. Tell a story with your data

Once you’ve identified which KPIs matter most to your audience for a given dashboard, organize how you present these KPIs in a way that guides your audience as if you were telling a story. For example, if this quarter’s customer acquisition cost is a critical KPI, your dashboard design would emphasize that KPI and then, in smaller font, present data from prior quarters and breakouts for different acquisition channels. Ideally, you can also provide a summary and/or key takeaways from the data. Get inspired by the ten best modern data visualization examples.

5. Choose the Right Types of Charts

It’s important to apply the right type of charts to represent your data. You should start by keeping in mind what information your audience needs to see. Here are the four primary chart types and recommendations on when to use them as you design your dashboard:

Comparison Charts

Use these simple visualizations to help users compare values over time, recognize trends, and identify high and low values. Common examples are bar charts, line charts and circular area charts. Time-based charts should represent time periods on the X axis and bar and line charts should ideally be limited to 7 data values.

Composition Charts

This type of data presentation helps users see parts of a whole, either over time or for a static period. Stacked area charts and stacked bar charts represent the changing relationship between data points over time. Pie charts show the relative difference between parts of a whole. Limiting how many data components you apply will make composition charts much easier to read.

Distribution Charts

This visualization type allows users to more easily see the shape or tendency of their data and quickly spot outliers and commonalities. Bar histograms, line histograms and scatter plots are common examples of distribution charts.

Relationship Charts

These visualizations help users see correlations and relationships in data. Scatter plots are effective for analyzing distribution and scatter plots with different bubble sizes adds a third data dimension

6. Apply Essential Dashboard UI Design Principles

Well-designed dashboards adhere to user interface (UI) design principles that guide an audience toward the information they need. The four principles below will help you transform messy data into well-informed decisions.

Organize the Information

When designing your dashboards, use classic UI design and information hierarchy principles to add clarity and guide your audience through the data. People usually scan horizontally across a page, and then down, so put the most important information at the top-left.

Keep it Simple

Busy business people need information and insights at a glance. Limit the number of charts and data points on the dashboard to avoid clutter and draw attention to key metrics by using color, font size and placement.

Provide Visual Cues

When designing for modern, interactive dashboards, use icons, buttons or text to indicate when an element links to another page or provides contextual information. Add clear calls to action if you want users to do something.

Get Color Right

First, make sure your dashboard design is consistent with your organization’s brand identity (colors, fonts, and graphics). Second, limit your use of color in general to keep your dashboard’s appearance open and light. Third, balance your use of color with the use of shapes and contrast.

7. Iterate and evolve

Before you roll out your dashboards to a large group, share them with a few users from the audience, listen to their feedback and make any revisions. Once you’ve rolled it out to the broader team, again ask for input and suggestions. Ideally, you could watch people actually using your dashboard. Plus, the KPIs most important to your audience now may change next month as the market changes, company strategy shifts, or new initiatives are launched.

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How to Design Best-in-Class Dashboards

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