The discussion on dashboard design often has a strong focus on data visualisation best practice: choosing the most appropriate charts to display information in the most efficient manner possible.
Putting the importance of effective data visualisation aside, this post instead highlights the core components of a dashboard and provides 5 simple and effective ways to design impactful reports with a strong focus on end-user engagement. Let’s start with a definition…
What is a dashboard?
A dashboard, also commonly referred to as a ‘report’, can mean different things to different people and is often defined by the requirement and development tool. For this post, a dashboard simply refers to a visual summary and interactive presentation of data, with the primary purpose to monitor performance .
Why are User-Friendly Dashboards Important?
There is a lengthy workflow behind dashboard development, from requirements gathering to data preparation and modelling, choosing the most appropriate visualisations, and the ongoing feedback-development loop. Despite this, the flurry of anticipation when releasing a report can often be met with a low level of engagement. Why is this? Working with data and looking at charts is second nature to Analyst’s. Therefore, it can be easy to underestimate the complexity that dashboards may present to end-users. Especially those who may be less familiar with tools such as Tableau or Power BI. It is therefore crucial not only to design a dashboard that follows best practice regarding data visualisation but also to prioritise its usability. Minimal effort should be required from the end-user to interpret and understand the report.
The 5 points made below, in no particular order, are suggestions on how to achieve more user-friendly dashboards. There are overarching themes of consistency, guidance, and simplicity touched on throughout.
1. Have a dashboard template
A dashboard template refers to a repeatable layout that guides the placement of items within a report. This includes, but is not limited to the following:
– Company logo
– Navigation buttons
– Filtering options
– The size and number of visuals per page
– The order of items such as starting with summary Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)
– General data information such as when it was last refreshed
The template should act as the foundation and guide the development of any new reports. Designing dashboard templates are great because they only need to be designed once (re-vamped occasionally as new functionality is released). It also provides consistency in what users are viewing and interacting with. So, they learn what to expect from their reporting and how it works. This can increase user engagement as they are not required to re-learn the intricacies and workings of dashboards each time a new one is released.
2. Provide documentation on how to use the dashboard
When you have been developing a dashboard for some time it is easy to underestimate how complicated it is and that it requires a level of understanding how it works before being able to use it to gain insights. Documentation should, therefore, be provided with each dashboard. This includes metric definitions, instructions on how to navigate, contents page with descriptions, and generic ‘how to’ guides on using the tool itself, such as exporting data directly from a visualisation.
Documentation can be provided in a variety of forms such as detailed PDF documents which link directly from the report, training ‘walk through’ videos, or information icons with descriptive tooltips. A dashboard should be treated as a tool in and of itself and with every good tool comes a description of how to use it. This will increase user engagement because they will have a good understanding of what they are looking at and how it works.
3. Have clear navigation
Depending on the audience, dashboards often start with a high-level summary of the key metrics but then have further detailed pages to drill into the data at a more granular level. Users, therefore, need clear navigation options to move between pages with ease. This includes back/next arrows, as well as links to documentation. Reports with clear navigation that do not require effort from the user to understand are more likely to be successful. Users who can quickly find what they want are more likely to turn to the dashboard for its intended purpose: gaining insights and informing decisions.
4. Use company branding
Branding refers to the use of colour, fonts, logos, shapes, and imagery which is unique and clearly distinguishes an organisation. The dashboard template, as discussed above, should therefore also incorporate your company/client branding. Having consistently identifiable reporting provides a level of familiarity which in turn can lead to greater trust from users. This is because it is not seen as a random combination of data visualisations, but a branded product verified by the company. Branding, therefore, can act as a stamp of approval.
5. Less is more
With large amounts of data and contributions from several different business users, dashboards can often represent the amalgamation of ideas. This can result in dashboards trying to fit in too much content, running the risk of users becoming overwhelmed. Too much information can leave users not knowing where to start and render the dashboard unfit for purpose. Dashboards should therefore be designed with ‘less is more’ in mind, presenting only the most important metrics and visualisations.
The ‘less is more’ mentality starts at the requirements gathering stage. Establishing the most relevant business questions and having the confidence to challenge and push back where necessary. Next, through certain visualisations such as a bar and line or a scatter chart, you can present multiple metrics on the same visualisation. This can help reduce the number of visuals and pages within a report. Moreover, multiple metrics within the same chart can also be displayed using different colours, sizes, shapes, and labels.
Finally, intelligent use of dynamic functionality in reports can help a dashboard remain uncluttered while also including more detail. For example, the use of filter menus, hierarchies, and flipping between different metrics in the same visual on the click of a button can help towards the ‘less is more’ approach.
To summarise, the purpose of this post has been to provide practical suggestions on creating impactful dashboards. Putting the end-user at the centre of development. Driven by underlying development design principles; consistency in style and layout, guidance by providing comprehensive and complete documentation, and simplicity where less is more and not overwhelming the user.
Thank you for reading- if you enjoyed this post, you may want to read the blog: 5 considerations when building data visualisations >