Why you need to think about design when creating dashboards

Why you need to think about design when creating dashboards

As a vendor of dashboards, I know it’s really important how people use them to effectively communicate their data to end-users. But I believe a well-designed dashboard is a rare thing.

To prove this theory, I recently Googled “dashboards” and looked at about 2,000 of them. I saw far more hideous ones than I did good. It made me realize that there is a huge gulf between the design capability of people building dashboards and the needs of the end-users. Many data analysts are doing themselves a disservice by not ‘polishing the pixels’. 

Fundamentally, a dashboard’s effectiveness starts with the design and you don’t have to be a professional to know when something isn’t working. People notice because the look and feel is part of communication. It's how people absorb and embrace the information you’re trying to give them. 

Good dashboard design helps you achieve three things:

1. Builds trust

We’ve all encountered a badly designed website. You're trying to buy something online and you come across a really hideous website that's difficult to use. You don't trust it, you're not going to spend the time to really go through it and you’re definitely not going back. Functionally, that website could have exactly the same content as another site that you love to use - the difference is good design. 

Airbnb is a good example of that. Their primary success has been in their design. You trust the way the website works and that's what you want for your dashboards. You want people to be able to trust the content in your dashboard and want to use it. 

2. Reinforces your brand

When you see a dashboard in your organization’s colors and fonts it has a surprising effect. It makes you realize that those numbers are related to your company so you need to act on them. 

A clunky dashboard that has any old color and Comic Sans font isn’t reflective of the organization the data belongs to so business users aren’t going to feel like they need to act on it. A well-designed dashboard strengthens the connection between the data and your business outcomes. 

3. Is all about usability

Many data analysts don't understand what their dashboards are built for. Before you even put pen to paper, you need to understand the purpose of the dashboard you're building. What's the most important message you're trying to convey with that data? What questions are your end-users likely to ask? How can you guide them to the answers? 

The answers to these questions are about how the dashboard is used - its end-to-end communication. For example, if you're doing a comparative budget - actuals to forecast - and there's a difference, how do you communicate that in a dashboard? Do you give the end-user the context for that difference so they can understand and act on it, or do you just show the difference and leave them to figure it out themselves. A lot of organizations do the latter because they don't really think about how people will use the data. 

In many ways, good dashboard design is about learning the art of communication and what's important for your customer. How it looks and feels is going to impact how they use it. So spend time with the end-user in the design phase. Take the time to understand what's really important to them, understand how they think, and listen to the language they use. Think about what they’re going to see and interact with. Even when it comes to something simple like naming the fields in your dashboards - make it fit their language.

Learning the skill of great dashboard design is key to building your craft as a data analyst. This means you have to work with the business to really think about their needs. When you build your dashboard, take the time to polish them up and make them look magnificent so your business users will love using them. 

Dashboard design best practices

Read a detailed blog post with more design best practices to create dashboards that move people to action.