5 tips to make your next dashboard your best yet (designing dashboards for UX/UI)
Aug 19, 2019
Today I’m going to describe five principles that will help you create dashboards that serve the people that count, rather than just serving up data.
The principles are:
- finding your dashboard’s “big idea”
- getting buy-in with a wireframe
- ensuring clarity
- keeping it simple
- creating a good flow of information
I like to think of the first two as the research phase because they take place before I start developing my dashboard. And I think of the last three as the creation phase, since I’m thinking about them as I build.
A clear dashboard that focuses on a central theme speaks for itself. You’ll spend less time explaining the dashboard, and data-driven decisions can be made more easily because the right information is readily accessible.
Sounds like a solid way to work, doesn’t it?
Well then, let’s get started.
The research phase
What’s the big idea?
Knowing what you want to convey is the foundation of building an amazing dashboard. What’s the big idea behind your dashboard? Its raison d’etre?
The best way to get these answers is by having a conversation with your audience. It’s crucial to understand who the audience is, what they hope to accomplish with this data, and the actions they will take based on the information they see.
For instance, an executive making strategic business decisions needs different information than an operations manager who is keeping things running smoothly on a day-to-day basis.
Both have a goal. Asking your audience what they’re hoping to get out of their dashboard is the first step in making it happen. Your conversation might go something like this:
You: What’s your role here at Housing Inc.?
Audience: I’m a housing development manager. I oversee the development process from conception to ribbon-cutting.
You: Great, thanks! I understand you want some information about the housing markets in California. What specifically do you want to get out of this dashboard?
Audience: Oh, thanks for asking. I want something that will help me determine where to pursue our next development.
You: Good to know. What kind of information helps you determine that?
Audience: I need to see trends in the marketplace… what are the local rents like for different unit sizes? How much is property selling for? What’s the median income for the area? Are there affordable housing requirements in the local area? How long is the typical permitting process?
It would be great if we could set all of this data up and then I could change which location I’m looking at to compare different markets.
You: If you had this information in front of you, what would you do with it? What action would you take?
Audience: If I saw something that looked promising, I would pick up the phone and start making calls to people in the area to get our process rolling.
You: If you had access to all of that information from different areas, would it be enough to pick up the phone? Is there anything else you might need?
Audience: You know, another thing that can have a surprisingly significant influence on the decision to build is parking. If there is ample parking in the area, meaning we don’t have to build it ourselves, we’ll save a ton of money. I’d like to see what parking is like in each area as well.
You: Good to know — I’ll make sure we get you the parking information too. Thanks for the chat today!
Even if you aren’t talking to a housing development manager, this method of drilling into the details and making sure that the dashboard will be actionable applies universally.
To help, we put together a guide about how to talk to your audience, complete with suggested questions and a space to take notes. You can download it here.
Get buy-in with a wireframe
Not only will these conversations ensure your dashboard is useful, they’re also a way to get buy-in from your audience before you begin. That means you lessen the chances of your audience changing their requirements after you spend time and energy building your dashboard.
To be extra sure you’re delivering what your audience wants, create a wireframe. A wireframe of a dashboard represents what it will look like when it’s finished. Include which types of visualizations will represent the data.
Simply drawing on a piece of paper can do the trick. The point is to give your audience a preview of what the dashboard will look like and work with them to refine it — before you create it.
Once you have agreement on the purpose of the dashboard and its content, it’s time to start building. As you do so, keep in mind the principles of clarity, simplicity, and flow.
The creation phase
Make it clear
Clarity ensures viewers understand what the content of a dashboard means.
Use descriptive titles, labels, and notes to make it clear what people are looking at. They should know what each number and visualization is saying without having to ask. The dashboard pictured below exemplifies the use of these features.
Use your audience’s lingo as you title visualizations and add descriptions.
For instance, business users aren’t as familiar with your data as you are, and they won’t know how to translate database column names into business definitions.
As a data analyst, you can bridge that gap by using language that business users are acquainted with.
Make it simple
Everything on the dashboard should have a purpose. Think about the “big idea,” the action your audience wants to take after seeing this information. Does every tile support and inform that action? If you find one that doesn’t, show no mercy — remove it.
Ideally, you’ll provide viewers the option to drill into more detail if they’re curious.
The sales manager’s dashboard shown below exemplifies simplicity. Every tile answers a piece of the question, “How is my team performing?”
At the top are real numbers against quota. Underneath that are person-by-person numbers, where I can see how everyone is doing booking meetings.
With this visualization, I can pinpoint who might have strategies to share with everyone, as well as who might need them.
Now, notice what isn’t here:
- Extraneous text: There is no Y-axis label on the two-column charts because it’s obvious what the numbers mean.
- Too many decimal places: The value_format parameter is used to limit the number of decimal places shown.
- A rainbow: The color scheme here is simple. For instance, the Total Won ACV chart stands out immediately because it’s displayed in purple, while everything else is blue or green.
If you’re a LookML developer, you have some extra tools to simplify your dashboards. You can use drills and linking to provide details that fall outside of the scope of the dashboard.
Note: If you’re creating embedded dashboards with Looker, be extra careful to make sure that your audience can access any links or drills you provide. Embed users typically have very specific permission sets — they may not be able to drill, for instance, so be sure to create a smooth experience by providing content that is within their permissions.
Let it flow
Flow means the dashboard contains a steady, sensical, well-organized stream of information. It’s all about where you put which content.
Think of your dashboard like a news website — you want the headlines at the top. People can then scroll for more details.
Take advantage of the way people read information. For English readers, that pattern is top left, then right, then down and to the left (if your audience reads a different language, follow their common reading pattern).
In the example below, the Campaign Performance section is the headline. If someone were curious for more detail, they could look to the Profit Analysis section that starts below it.
Use margins and titles to frame the visualizations and break up the story into sections (keeping each section to about a page whenever possible).
Lastly, notice the alignment of the tiles. Standardizing the sizes of the tiles and neatly lining them up keeps your dashboard easy to read.
Colors in embedded dashboards
If you’re embedding, you can customize the colors of your dashboards to match the app or webpage where it appears. This maintains flow within your product, as in the example below.
You can even create a customized theme to apply across all of your embedded content.
If you customize the theme of your embedded dashboards:
- Create a high contrast between the text and background colors so that the text is easily readable.
- Don’t get too carried away with colors. Playing is fun, but remember that the data is the star of the show. The point of having a dashboard is for your customers to take action on the information that they see.
Well, there you have it — all my best dashboarding tips in one blog post. Which one surprised you the most?
Can you think of a dashboard you already created that could be made even better by implementing some of these ideas?
Know of any helpful tips I missed?
Until next time,
Content Strategist, Customer Education