Designing Dashboards

Expert Q&A: How to Design Dashboards That Serve a Purpose

By Michelle Gardner
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Dashboards serve as visual displays of the most important information needed to achieve an objective. They transform raw data into critical information, rich stories, and easily understandable data visualizations for your users, who can comprehend and act on it in a fraction of the time it would otherwise take them. Which is why it’s so important to start any dashboard design project with a clear purpose in mind.

We talked to Midori Nediger, product designer at Venngage, about some of the most common mistakes in dashboard design and best practices to ensure your dashboards are both useful and usable.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when presenting data?

Midori Nediger: One of the most common mistakes I see in data visualization is the misuse of color. Because color has such an impact on the aesthetics of the design, designers often choose color schemes based on their own personal preferences or the requirements of the brand they’re designing for. But color naturally carries meaning in data visualization—it communicates information about relationships within the data and can be used to guide the viewer’s eye within the design. Color choices should be made with intention with presenting data, especially when designing complex dashboards.

Another common mistake is using charts that don’t reflect the structure of the data they’re displaying or the goal we’re trying to achieve, like using a bar chart to show a trend over time. We can expect viewers to be familiar with the conventions of basic charts, and we have to make our design choices with those conventions in mind.

What are some best practices for dashboard design?

  1. Design with a purpose: Your first step in any dashboard design project should be to clearly define the purpose of the dashboard, because you’ll never be able to design a dashboard that is all things for all people. Each dashboard should be designed for a specific purpose, and cater to the needs of a specific end user.
  2. Use visual hierarchy to guide your viewer’s attention: Visual hierarchy is important in any UI, but it’s critical in dashboard design, where the content of the design can be particularly dense and complex. Fortunately, using visual hierarchy in a dashboard is no different than using visual hierarchy in product design—the size, color, and weight of each element should reflect the importance of that element within the entire display, and the order in which you expect the viewer to view each element.
  3. Make the most of progressive disclosure: A useful tactic to help you avoid putting too much data into a single dashboard is to use progressive disclosure. That is, show a high-level snapshot of the data up front, while allowing the user to drill down deeper if they want to. This can help ensure your viewers won’t be overwhelmed with too much data.

What are steps that you can take to ensure that an analytics dashboard or report is useful and usable?

Like I mentioned earlier, every dashboard should be designed with a specific end user in mind. The best way to ensure the dashboard is useful and usable is to involve those end users in the design process. Just like you would when designing a product, talk to your users to learn about their workflows, their pain points, their needs, and their wants. Before you start designing, make sure you have a thorough understanding of how the dashboard is going to be used. And as soon as you have a design in mind, show it to those users and get start getting feedback!

Want to know what it takes to build an application with analytics at its core? Download The Essential Guide to Building Analytic Applications and hear from 16 experts across business intelligence, UI/UX, security, and more >

Originally published December 18, 2019

About the Author

Michelle Gardner is the Director of Corporate Marketing & Communications at Logi Analytics. She has over a decade of experience writing and editing content, with a specialty in software and technology.