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A Guide to Creating Dashboards People Love to Use
Part 2: Structure

by Zach Gemignani, www.juiceanalytics.comThursday, October 22, 2009

Dashboard Design Matters

Dashboards have become standard business practice over the last decade. Dozens of dashboard building tools have sprung up to meet the demand. Yet in the flurry of technology and enthusiasm, little attention has been paid to how to design focused, thoughtful, and user-friendly dashboards. Our three-part guide will show you the concepts and give you the best practices to create a high-impact dashboard that people love to use.

Traditional dashboard design focuses almost exclusively on defining the right success metrics, then piecing together a bunch of charts and gauges on a single page. These techniques result in solutions with a hodgepodge appearance and confusing information.

Traditional dashboard design techniques
result in confused solutions
This guide will help you design more intuitive
and effective dashboards

In the early days of the world wide web, it was good enough to simply have the right information on the web page. The current industry-standard dashboards are no more ambitious. However, modern web design has moved on to seek a union of utility, usability and beauty. With regards to the way business displays data, we must seek a similar union.

This document will approach dashboard design in a holistic way, beginning with general goals and evolving to specific data presentation. Part 1: Foundation will help you identify your target audience, understand what type of dashboard you want to create and why it is valuable to your organization. It concludes with guidance regarding how to focus your message on the information and metrics that matter. Part 2: Structure will get you started on designing your dashboard, including what form it should take, how to arrange for audience understanding, and what navigation, interactions, and capabilities will make the dashboard useful and engaging. Finally, Part 3: Information Design dives into the details of interface and information design. You will learn how to lay out your dashboard and best practices for charting and data presentation.

Framing the Dashboard

Now that we’ve defined in Part 1 what the dashboard should accomplish for your audience, it is time to start the thinking about how your dashboard actually looks and how it works. This section offers ideas about the big-picture elements of your dashboard–the building blocks that you will use to construct the dashboard. The building blocks can be broken into four categories:

  1. Form: In what format is the dashboard delivered?
  2. Structure: How is the dashboard laid out to help users understand the big picture?
  3. Design principles: What are the fundamental objectives that will guide your design
    decisions?
  4. Functionality: What capabilities will the dashboard include to help users understand
    and interact with the information?

Form

The conventional view has been that dashboards need to be constrained to a single page; we believe dashboards can come in many forms. A short e-mail can serve as a dashboard if it works for the recipients. Likewise, a wall-mounted 55” plasma TV showing an animated presentation has the potential to be an effective dashboard.

What’s important is selecting a form that fits the need of the situation–form follows function. The function of a dashboard is to communicate critical information to your audience in a way they can understand, delivered when and where they need the information.

Before you decide how you want to deliver your dashboard, think about a few factors that may influence the dashboard form:

  1. Timeliness: How frequently is the data in the dashboard updated?
  2. Aesthetic value: How important is it that the dashboard look attractive, or can it be purely utilitarian?
  3. Mobility: Does the audience need to access the information on-the-go?
  4. Connectivity: Does the dashboard need to connect to live data sources?
  5. Data detail: Will the dashboard offer an ability to drill down to see more context?
  6. Data density: How information-rich will views of the data be?
  7. Interactivity: Will the user benefit from interacting with the dashboard?
  8. Collaboration: Is it important that your audience be able to easily share and collaborate on the dashboard?

In the following table, we assess six forms of dashboards by their effectiveness in addressing the factors above (“+” means the form can work well for the specific factor; “-” means the form is not effective). Which forms perform well for the factors your audience cares about?

Dashboard Chart Structure

Structure

The standard practice for laying out a dashboard, unfortunately, has been to slot charts into a grid. Take this dashboard for example (with our grid overlay):

Digital Dashboard Grid

This rigid structure tells us nothing about how different charts relate to each other; offers no clue as to where to begin understanding the data; and nothing about what information is most important.

Creating a layout that helps frame the content of your dashboard may be the most undervalued area of dashboard design.

Why structure matters?

Stephen Few, author of Information Dashboard Design, calls structure one of the greatest challenges of dashboard design:

"Dashboard content must be organized in a way that reflects the nature of the information and that supports efficient and meaningful monitoring. Information cannot be placed just anywhere on the dashboard, nor can sections of the display be sized simply to fit the available space. Items that relate to one another should usually be positioned close to one another. Important items should often appear larger, thus more visually prominent, than less important items. Items that ought to be scanned in a particular order ought to be arranged in a manner that supports that sequence of visual attention.” (Pervasive Hurdles to Effective Dashboard Design, Visual Business Intelligence Newsletter, January 2007)


The structure of your dashboard is also an opportunity to define the “right” way to look at a problem or the business. How you choose to lay out the information shapes how your audience understands the big picture and how the smaller pieces fit together. At a more practical level, structure can serve as a navigational mechanism for the user. It shows where to start, and where to go next.

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