Design Tips to Avoid in Creating Dashboards
By Heather Peterson
Nothing says Thanksgiving like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Everyone grows up waking up and turning the TV on to watch the procession of beloved characters and entertainers on floats or in the form of a balloon. Some even camp out for a spot along the parade route to see the festivities live. Throughout the years, balloons mostly stay the same while new ones are added each year. Floats on the other hand differ from year to year in appearance. From Sesame Street to the Hess Corporation, floats come in all shapes and sizes. Some became the star of the show with a pretty design, key features of emphasis, and a nice balance of flowers and decoration. Other floats can get overlooked with too much to look at and an unidentifiable theme.
Much like the Thanksgiving Day parade floats; the design of a dashboard can be a real crowd pleaser and fan favorite or the worst in show. There is no one right way to design a dashboard but there are some faux pas. Avoiding mistakes like too much clutter, unnecessary features, etc. can create a successful and visually pleasing dashboard that inspires and educates.
With all the creativity and information that goes into creating a dashboard, there’s a whole parade of bad design pitfalls. Here are some of the “Top Turkey” bad design elements as noted by data visualization expert and author Stephen Few  from the firm Perceptual Edge.
- Overflowing the limits of a single screen
- Love of fancy graphics that show technology tricks but not knowledge
- Vague data with little or no context
- Too much detail creating clutter
- Ambiguous measurements and values
- Use the wrong chart or table for information
- Lack of uniformity or purpose throughout
- Low quality display of media
- Displaying data in the wrong format
- Poor layout of data
- Allowing important info to get overlooked
- Inefficient or wasteful use of color
- Designing a confusing or unattractive display
- Clutter with useless decoration
Tips to follow when designing a dashboard
Nick Gibson wrote in his column earlier this year called “Dashboard Design: 10 Tips to Design User-Friendly Dashboards” and provided the following as a guide:
Identify your Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
Look for leading and lagging indicators in your business. Examples are provided in a blog article we wrote last month called “Leading vs. Lagging KPIs – What Successful Companies Measure”. This will help identify the important things the reader should follow.
Use tricks of the trade
Speed up the design process by using common design methods. Brittani Sponaugle wrote a blog on the common “9 UI Design Patterns” that should be followed. As she stated “Some of these design elements may seem like a no-brainer because you’re used to using other websites with similar features every day.”
Let users decide what they see
Utilize filters and grouping features to organize tables and lists for quick and easy access.
Less is more
The less clutter and pages to click, the better. Break everything down into simple steps and condense for faster usability.
Put colors to work
To catch your users’ eye, utilize colors to signal and notify users to features, actions, and tasks. Colors are best used in button and menus.
Keep platform used by user in mind.
Build a powerful and usable interface focusing on your most popular platform (tablet, smartphone, and desktop). For example, large buttons for tablet based usage.
Offer customer service and feedback
Show your users around the dashboard in a demo video showing them key features. This will greatly reduce user questions and confusion.
So if you think of your dashboards as a series of parade balloons and floats on Thanksgiving Day, what is the message and the storyline in your dashboards? As a vendor, we are often guilty of showcasing gadgets to demonstrate the capabilities of the software. We are not helping the client understand the “story” and the key KPIs that a business manager should focus on.
One of the differentiators of webKPI from other dashboard tools, is that we provide the user with the ability to create their own dashboards. So hopefully, this allows the user to create what is the best look for their own eye.
So to wrap, here is a quote on Thanksgiving to remember. Erma Bomback said, “Thanksgiving dinners take 18 hours to prepare. They are consumed in 12 minutes. Half-time takes 12 minutes. This is not coincidence”.
Dashboards are like any report you have created. Takes lots of time to develop and prepare but the viewer either “gets it or not” in minutes.
 Information Dashboard Design: Displaying data for at-a-glance monitoring, Second Edition, Stephen Few, $40.00 (U.S.), Analytics Press, 2013