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How to Design Effective Dashboard Displays

by Wayne EckersonThursday, February 17, 2011



A Pareto charts is a bar and line chart that shows the 80-20 relationship among categorical items. Items represented by bars are arranged from biggest to smallest with the line representing the cumulative sum of item values. Pareto charts are one of the few bar and line charts that work effectively.

Pereto Chart


A variance chart is a bar chart that provides a great way to highlight variance between two variables, such as actuals and plan or forecast. A variance chart more clearly depicts variance than if the two variables are depicted in a time-series line chart or a table of numbers. A variance chart is a great way to complement a table of numbers.

Varience Chart Graph


Maps can be an ideal way to depict geographical trends quickly, such as the performance of rail lines serving a coal mine (see right). However, maps are often misused. They are overkill when used to depict non-geographical trends or when other displays would be more compact or meaningful to viewers.

Spatial Map


A popular newcomer to the visualization scene, tree maps display categorical data as a series of nested rectangles in which the size of the rectangle represents one attribute and color another. Heat maps are a compact way to expose hidden trends quickly. For example, the chart at right shows the performance of more than 45 metrics in a railroad company. A hover over exposes underlying metric values.

Tree Map


Also known as bubble charts, scatter plots display the values of two variables as dots or bubbles on an X/Y axis. One variable determines the position on the X axis and the other the Y axis. A scatter plot makes it easy to visualize the correlation between two variables, which is usually depicted as a straight or curved trend line.

scatter plot chart


These graphs show how items or groups of items compare across a series of metrics represented as box plots. They are ideal for visualizing large numbers of items and how they change and compare over time or a series of metrics.

Parallel Coordinate Chart


A data constellation chart shows multiple levels of a hierarchy and relationships among items in a single view. Users can examine the details of a subset of elements without losing view of the entire data set. Moving a cursor across the chart magnifies the area under the cursor while minimizing the other parts, enabling users to quickly drill into detail and view relationships.

data constellation chart


Data bars visualize values in one or more columns of data, bringing visual life to a table of numbers. By sorting the columns and scrolling, users can quickly view patterns and anomalies in large volumes of data. Data bars work equally well on summarized or detailed data.

data bar chart


Dashboard design is not about making something visually pleasing or pretty; it’s about communicating the meaning of the data. Too often, however, the visual design of dashboards obscures the meaning of the data in them.

Good dashboard design uses the least amount of ink to highlight key trends or relationships within the data. It leverages Gestalt principles of perception, preattentive processing, and other visual techniques to group, highlight, or sequence what’s interesting in the data and minimize the rest. It selects the right graphs to monitor performance, examine relationships, or interactively explore the data.

Wise dashboard developers get training in the basics of designing visual displays of quantitative information and team up with experts to fine - tune dashboard prototypes before getting user feedback. They also leverage usability labs — whether homemade or professionally managed — to get vital clues on the effectiveness of their dashboard designs.

About the Author

Wayne W. Eckerson (Hingham, MA) is the Director of Research for The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI), the leading provider of high-quality, in-depth education and research to business intelligence and data warehousing professionals worldwide. He has 20 years of experience in the IT industry and has covered data warehousing and business intelligence issues since 1994. As the founder and editor of TDWI's In-Depth Report Series, he has written about business performance management, best practices in BI, analytic applications, data quality, and data integration.  He is a regular contributor to DM Review and is regularly quoted in business and industry magazines.


1. Stephen Few, Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data (Sebastapol, CA: O ’ Reilly Media, 2006), p. 36.
2. Ibid., p. 107.
3. Stephen Few, Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data (Sebastapol, CA: O ’ Reilly Media, 2006), p. 49.
4. Ibid., p. 122.

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