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How to Design Effective Dashboard Displays

by Wayne EckersonThursday, February 17, 2011

Colors. In the spirit of less is more, you should avoid using color except to highlight things that viewers need to see, such as a subpar KPI. If you do use colors, Few recommends using muted earth tones rather than primary colors.

Gestalt Principle of Proximity
EXHIBIT 12.4 Gestalt Principle of Proximity

The Gestalt principle of proximity uses white space to cause viewers to see data as arranged in either vertical or horizontal sets.

data chart
EXHIBIT 12.5 Color - Blind - Friendly Graphic

To emphasize a single element, don’t change the color, just shift the saturation or brightness, which is enough to distinguish the object from the rest. Increase the brightness of elements that should jump out at users and decrease the brightness or eliminate color altogether for all other elements. (See Exhibit 12.8 for an example.)

It’s also important to remember that 8 percent of men and 2 percent of women are color blind; thus, using color exclusively to communicate meaning will backfire for a small minority of users. To compensate, many dashboard designers complement colors with symbols or use pop-ups that display text when a user hovers a cursor over the dashboard object. (See Exhibit 12.5.)

Leverage Dashboard Themes

These guidelines are a lot to remember, and they are only the tip of the iceberg. Ideally, dashboard vendors should bake these guidelines into their products in the form of themes and templates that you can adapt to meet your company’s branding and preferences.

A good theme will select a palette of complementary colors, fonts, lines, and other elements that are applied automatically when objects are inserted into the dashboard. A good template will help position objects on the screen to ensure proper flow and balance the twin demands of sparsity and density.

When evaluating dashboard products check whether they offer themes and templates and evaluate whether any resemble your company’s look and feel or can be adapted to your needs. Vendors’ design IQ is rapidly increasing; there is no reason that you should suffer with a product that provides minimal design guidance.

Guidelines for Designing Charts

Many of the principles described for designing a dashboard apply to designing charts or graphs. The key is to focus on the data, not the chart. Make sure the graph communicates the key message in the data and doesn’t obscure it. Few writes, “Graphs give shape to numbers, and in doing so, bring to light patterns that would otherwise remain undetected.” 4

Less Is More

I create a lot of charts for research reports, and long ago, I discovered that the default chart templates in Excel are just plain ugly. They incorporate too many elements that occlude the meaning of the data I’m trying to communicate. I now use a custom template that strips most of the offending clutter from a standard Excel chart.

Exhibit 12.6 shows two Excel charts that display the same data but use different chart types and effects. The second is cleaner and easier to read. That’s because I stripped out the gridlines, shading, borders, legend, and scale that appear in the fi rst chart. I also rotated the second chart so the bars run horizontally, enabling viewers to read category text from left to right instead of diagonally from bottom to top, which is awkward.

In addition, I reordered the bars so that the longest one is at the top and the shortest at the bottom. (However, if the chart used an ordinal scale with an implicit order, such as January - February - March or highest to lowest, I would have not changed the order of the bars.) Finally, I added one element to the chart: data labels for each bar. I prefer these over a quantitative scale because many people want to know exact data values and don’t want to estimate the numbers visually.

The principle depicted in the “Before” and “After” charts is simple: Less is more. Don’t let the chart itself overwhelm the data it’s trying to communicate.

Bar Chart
EXHIBIT 12.6 Before and After

These two Excel charts depict the same data, but the second is cleaner and communicates the data more clearly.

Strip out unnecessary elements; avoid graphics that look like their real-life counterparts; and don’t use three-dimensional charts. Decorating a chart takes up valuable real estate and distracts the eye.

Make Comparisons Easy

Charts make it easy for people to visually compare things, such as sales across regions or profi ts over time. Instead of reading numbers one by one in a table or row and calculating their differences, a chart enables us to “see” the difference visually at a glance. We can identify relationships and patterns more quickly when data are displayed graphically instead of textually.

Eyes of the Beholder. Of course, the chart designer must understand the underlying patterns in the data and what information matters most to viewers. With this knowledge, the designer can select the proper dimensions for axes in a chart or table. For example, if managers want to compare product sales by region, which of the two charts in Exhibit 12.7 best meets their need?

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