in BI Strategy & Execution, Dashboards

Underwhelm Your Users with a Well-designed Dashboard

Dashboards and visualizations are a hot topic right now.  You can’t go to an SAP BusinessObjects event or a user group meeting without seeing over half of the presentations focusing on dashboards and visualizations.  And, like with any cutting-edge technology, it seems everyone is trying to get in on the action.  While that’s a good thing, sometimes people lack the basic knowledge and skills to utilize those tools to deliver effective analysis.

Creating effective dashboards and visualizations is both an art and a science, akin to web design.  When the internet was in it’s infancy, most websites contained a lot of bells and whistles (such as flashing test, GIF animations, visitor counters, etc…) but very little substance.

As the internet matured, website developers began to focus more on delivering compelling content and less on using every tool they have at their disposal.  Think of the sites you visit regularly today.  How many of them have a visitor count on the homepage?  Enough said.

Along those same lines, we’re going to look at a few tips you can use to take your dashboard and visualization skills to the next level and ‘underwhelm’ your users with a great dashboard design.

  1. Just because a component exists doesn’t mean you have to use it
    Some of the components in Crystal Dashboard Design (formerly Xcelsius) are poor.  Not from a quality standpoint, but in the context of displaying information in a meaningful way.  Unfortunately, these same components tend to provide a lot of “eye candy” and pop-up everywhere in marketing brochures and demo dashboards.  Resist the urge, and choose the right component for what you’re trying to convey…even if it’s not “glossy”.
  2. Choose the correct chart for your data
    An entire series of posts can be written on this topic.  (In fact, we’re working on that.)  In short, choose a chart that will best represent your data and dimensions.  If you’re looking at information trends along a time series, use a line chart.  Comparing information across different dimensions, use a bar chart.  And by all means, stay away from pie charts.  They just aren’t effective at visually representing differences in data values once you have more than 3 or 4 slices.
  3. Cohesive color theme
    Selecting a color scheme that works can do wonders for your dashboard design in adding an air of professionalism.  If you organization already as a color scheme developed for their website or intranet, you can leverage that.  Otherwise, try one of many color scheme tools such as Adobe’s Kuler to help you develop one.
  4. Incorporate Interactivity to Facilitate Analysis
    At the end of the day, a great dashboard is all about the data. To be an effective decision-making tool, users should be able to drill down from the dashboard to analyze more detailed information across other dimensions (e.g., time, product, geography, etc.).  Even the ability to open related, context-aware operational reports from the dashboard is a huge win for end-users, and is relatively simple to implement.
  5. White space
    Many dashboards that I’ve seen try to cram too much information into an area.  It’s almost as though the developer was paying for that space by the square pixel and was trying to maximize their investment.  If you truly need that much information available on the dashboard, use tabs or drill downs to access the secondary data.  Just remember that white space is your friend.

We’ll explore some of these concepts in more depth in future posts.  Until then, work on incorporating these tips into your dashboards and visualizations to increase their effectiveness and professionalism.

Question:  What tips would you share with someone just starting out with dashboard and visualization development?

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  1. Thank you for your great article. I’m new to dashboards and I’m working right now on the design of a dashboard for a customer. Your article provides relevant tips in a concise way on the visualization skills.

    I like your blog about dashboards, it’s informative, very well written and provides key information for those of us out there interested on this wonderful topic. Keep up the great work; I’ll be coming back for more.

    Mario