I am declaring war on poorly designed dashboards. I have thrown down the gauntlet and I need everyone’s support. My July interview with dashboard design and data visualization expert Stephen Few inspired me to start this war. In this interview, Stephen Few talked about poor dashboard design practices, including the overzealous use of speedometers, 3D charts, and other data visualization faux pas. As part of my new direction with Dashboard Insight, I want to stop this proliferation of poor dashboards. However, to win this war, I will need the help of BI professionals and dashboard vendors to spread the word and promote best practices.
The First Battles
The Speedometer Impasse
I'll be the first to admit that I have used speedometers in dashboards in the past. The truth is that people like them. They are familiar and therefore easy to read. However, I've always tried to keep the design clean and no larger than required to easily see the needle and its target.
Figure 1: The design evolution of gauges from inefficiently sized circular gauges to quarter gauges to bullet graphs
Ideally, you should replace your speedometers (or gauges) with visualizations like bullet graphs and, where applicable, horizontal bar charts. If you have a client who is adamant about speedometers, one way to approach the problem is to start off by presenting what they want. When new data is required for the dashboard (which inevitably will happen), you can make the argument you can’t fit anymore data on the dashboard. At this point, you can make the argument that these gauges need to go. They take up too much space and better visualizations will not only provide more information but require fewer dashboards and therefore cost less.
The Styling Clash
“We need lots of color, background images, and 3D charts to make our dashboards look beautiful.” If you have ever heard this from a client, you are not alone. Truth be told, you can make dashboards look beautiful without sacrificing readability. To convince the client, make your first dashboard look hideous by overusing these effects. Anything they see after this will be perfect!
In all seriousness, it just takes practice and creativity to make attractive dashboards without making them loud and 3D. If in doubt, check out Dashboard Insight's featured dashboard gallery for inspiration.
Flanking the Animation Requirement
If you have experience presenting with PowerPoint or another slideshow program, you probably know that the vast majority of people hate animations. If your client has provided these types of animations as a requirement for your dashboards, the best way to convince them otherwise is to give them exactly what they want. Create the dashboard mock-ups and then place them in a Powerpoint presentation, making use of ridiculous animations between slides. Afterwards, ask them what they think of the animations. I am confident the requirement will be removed.
For Software Vendors
During a client’s evaluation of your software, clients will ask for dials, 3D charts, and other fun widgets in your software offering. In addition, you produce dashboards that incorporate these widgets in order to market these features. Working as a product manager for a dashboard vendor in the past, I understand the need for this from a business perspective, as this gets the attention you need. Regardless, dashboard software should make it easy for people to incorporate dashboard design best practices. Suggestions include:
- Providing visualizations like sparklines and bullet graphs out-of-the-box
- Creating templates or default layouts that are simple, clear and beautiful
- Creating functional, visually appealing dashboards in your marketing campaigns
Our Battle Begins
I wrote this editorial because we have come to the point in business intelligence where we have access to more data than ever before. The marketing buzz word out there right now is “Big Data” and, beyond the marketing hype, it poses a serious problem for dashboard designers. It is even more imperative now to efficiently and correctly communicate data. Otherwise, we will lose the necessary insight to make informed decisions.
I asked you to join my war against poorly designed dashboards, and I hope to fight alongside you. Together, we can start turning data into knowledge.