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How to Design Effective Dashboard Displays

by Wayne EckersonThursday, February 17, 2011

Balance Sparsity and Density

Some experts say that dashboard screens should only have between three and seven metrics to have the greatest visual impact. However, few people want to arbitrarily restrict the number of metrics and risk excluding those that meet bona fi de business requirements or should be viewed together to deliver the full story.

How Many? What is the ideal number of objects to place on a dashboard screen? Should we design sparse, uncluttered displays with a minimum of objects to optimize at-a-glance monitoring and enhance retention? Or should we pack the dashboard with enough objects to give the complete picture?

The answer is that dashboard designers need to balance the twin demands of sparsity and density. There is always a trade- ff between these two, but following good design principles can help you create a dense dashboard layout that is also highly accessible and legible. Thus, you shouldn’t limit the dashboard to a fi xed number of objects, but you should always be aware when the display reaches its saturation limit.

The ratio between sparsity and density often varies by type of user and individual preference. Although there are no hard-and-fast rules, operational workers typically prefer denser displays of data, packed with detail and containing as much text as charts. In contrast, managers or executives prefer to scan a dozen or so metrics highlighted with stoplights and accompanied by an associated chart or two.

Evolving Perceptions. In addition, users who are intimately familiar with the data and processes represented on the dashboard can consume more information than those who are new to the space. Experienced users will get frustrated if they have to click multiple times to view information that belongs together. In fact, they might prefer a spreadsheet, despite its ungainly aesthetics and endless tables, because it gives them all the information they need in one ungainly gulp.

In contrast, novice users or people unfamiliar with a dashboard’s business domain can’t absorb as much information all at once. They prefer a simpler display with fewer items. Over time, as they gain more experience and become more familiar with the dashboard elements, they, too, will find the display limiting. At this point, savvy dashboard designers deliver a more advanced view by exposing more objects and functionality.

Eliminate Decoration

Preserving Real Estate. The way to pack a lot of information onto a single screen is to abbreviate or summarize it. This is usually done by representing metrics as graphical elements. “That’s because graphics convey more information in less space and we process visual information more rapidly than other types of information,” says Few.

However, most dashboard developers get carried away with graphical elements, spurred by vendors who populate their dashboard solutions with eye-popping graphics that do a good job of catching attention but a poor job of communicating information quickly. Part of the problem is that most vendors try to simulate an automobile dashboard on a computer screen and try to outgizmo each other with graphical effects. Thanks to evangelization by Few and other design experts, vendors have reined in some of their more egregious design instincts but still make these capabilities available to unsuspecting dashboard developers.

As a rule of thumb, every dashboard developer should ask: “Do the graphics provide the clearest, most meaningful presentation of the data in the least amount of space?” For example, radial gauges waste a lot of space due to their circular shape. Stoplights and thermometers that look like their real-life counterparts also consume too much real estate.

Nothing Signifies Something. Few says, “Don’t waste visual content with an entire stoplight, just show a single icon (for example, a circle) next to a metric.” He goes one step further and recommends not showing a symbol or icon at all if performance is acceptable. Users subconsciously recognize that the absence of an object carries meaning, like “no news is good news.”

Use an Intuitive Layout

Many developers stare at a blank dashboard screen and don’t know where to begin. Or they rush into the job without thinking at all. It’s safe to say that most need guidance about where to place various components, including metrics, charts, filters, tabs, help text, and other controls, on a dashboard screen to optimize the visual design.

Templates. Although there are no definitive rules, one place to start is to examine designs used by well-known, information-rich Web sites visited by millions of people, such as Yahoo, Amazon, and others. These sites have been scrutinized by Web site designers and redesigned numerous times to optimize usage and navigation. Although Few disagrees that Web site templates make good dashboard designs, imitating such templates gives users a familiar look and feel and ensures that they know how to navigate your dashboard. For example, Arizona State University patterns its dashboards after common Web site templates. (See Exhibit 12.1.)

stephen few dashboard
EXHIBIT 12.1 Web Site Templates Courtesy of Arizona State University.

Predefined Layouts. Some dashboard products use a Web publishing metaphor that lets users drag and drop components anywhere on the screen. Although this method offers tremendous flexibility, it can be overwhelming without a template to follow. Some dashboard products provide templates that offer predefined combination of panes, such as 2 × 2 or 3 × 4. Although these can accelerate deployment, they may also limit your ability to match the design to user needs, so employ them with caution.

Position and Placement. The way objects are positioned on a dashboard display tells a story and communicates meaning. For example, elements in the top left quadrant receive the most attention, followed by the upper right and lower left quadrants. The bottom right quadrant gets the least attention.

Therefore, designers place elements that deserve the greatest prominence in the upper left quadrant, followed by less prominent information in the other quadrants. Sometimes designers use arrows to step people from one section of the display to another if there is a logical sequence or fl ow to the data. Or they number elements to indicate a visual flow.

The center of a dashboard can also serve as a major focal point, especially when a graphic placed there is set apart visually from what surrounds it using a border or white space. However, few designers place objects in the middle of a dashboard because this makes the remaining space too narrow to display other items.

Groupings and Flows. Designers also group like elements together to show that they are related. The same goes for items that need to be compared. Placing them too far apart makes the user’s eyes work too hard to see and compare items. When designers cannot place items together, they use hues, shapes, or fonts to link related elements on the page.

Arrange Components Intelligently

Besides panes and charts, a performance dashboard contains other components that need to be arranged on the screen in an optimal fashion: tabs, filters, help menus, and bread crumbs.

Tabs. Folder tabs at the top of dashboard are an appropriate way to differentiate content based on a user’s role. Since most users wear many hats in an organization, they need quick access to multiple dashboards, each representing a different role they play. Tabs group functional content that belongs together, enabling users to switch quickly between roles instead of having to scroll through a hierarchical folder structure to launch a new dashboard or report.

Tabs also make it easy for dashboard architects to build a dashboard once and deploy it many times. Each dashboard is simply a role-based view of the same content running on the same platform. This method saves time and money compared to creating a new dashboard each time a user or group requests one.

However, users should not be shown tabs that don’t pertain to their role. For example, a poorly designed dashboard might show tabs for sales, marketing, maintenance, and flights — functions that a single person is unlikely to be responsible for. This clutters the display and tempts users to waste time. A good dashboard platform enables an administrator to select the appropriate tabs to display to each user or group.

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