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How to Design Effective Dashboard Displays

by Wayne EckersonThursday, February 17, 2011

Choose the Right Graph

Graphs come in many shapes and sizes. Selecting the right graph type makes a big difference in your ability to communicate the meaning of the data. The brief descriptions on Exhibit 12.10 should help you better discern when to use which type of graph.


Many dashboards use text to describe and encode data values. Text is used often to display numeric values in a table, particularly budget data (e.g., actuals, plans, forecast), as depicted at right. Text often is used to display data in lists or to expose hidden values when users hover their cursor over a graphical element.

text chart spreadsheet


Icons are simple images that communicate a clear and simple meaning. Symbols, such as those depicted in the first column of a crime statistics table, indicate the type of crime. Stoplights, such as shaded circles, often are used to indicate status. Symbols also are used to signify an alert or help color-blind people distinguish status levels.


Sparklines are compact line graphs that do not have a quantitative scale. They are meant to provide a quick sense of a metric’s movement or trend, usually over time. They are more expressive than arrows, which only indicate change from the prior period and do not qualify the degree of change. Sparklines are significantly more compact than normal line graphs but are precise.

sparkline chart


Bullet graphs show the status of a metric compared to targets and thresholds. They are more compact than decorative dials, gauges, or thermometers and can be arranged vertically or horizontally, making them a flexible display object.

bullet graph chart


Bar charts compare items in one or more categories along a single measure. They instantly show the relationship among items, such as biggest to smallest. The use of a legend and color expands the number of categorical attributes that a bar chart can display from one to two or more.

Bar Graph


Pie charts display the relationship of a part to the whole, such as U.S. sales to overall sales. Pie charts are not good for comparing relationships among the parts, especially if there are more two or three parts. In that case, a bar chart is preferable.

Pie Chart


Like pie charts, stacked bar charts also show the relationship of a part to the whole. However, unlike pie charts, the individual parts don’t have to equal 100%. They are also more compact than pie charts, making it easier to display multiple stacked bar charts side by side. However, it is difficult to visually ascertain the relationships among parts in different stacked bar charts, except the first variable in each one.

stacked bar chart


Line charts are great for showing a continuous time series where it is important to visualize one or more trends over time versus data values for each period (although “hover” techniques let users see individual values in a line chart). The Flash chart at right includes a visual control at bottom that lets users expand or contract the time series above.

Line chart

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