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Are there rules of thumb to decide which graphical interface best conveys meaning?
Or is it purely aesthetic?

by Shadan Malik, www.idashboards.comWednesday, April 25, 2007

There are several factors that go into creating an effective dashboard. The presentation of a dashboard is crucial in properly conveying the information. Dashboard design and layout are important components of effective dashboard design. Below are some guidelines that can be applied when creating a dashboard:

Dashboard Design

A well-designed dashboard must have an aesthetic appeal and deploy powerful visualization to convey a wealth of information within a limited space. Some of the key elements important to dashboard design are the following:

  • Screen graphics and colors
  • Selection of appropriate chart types
  • Animation with relevance
  • Optimal content placement

Screen Graphics and Colors

Screen graphics and colors are important in building the visual framework of the dashboard. Unlike reports, users expect much greater visual appeal from dashboards. Preference should be given to light and neutral colors for banners, navigation tabs, and borders within a dashboard. The color palette should not interfere or distract from the key messages and information displayed on the dashboard. Light blue, light gray, or light beige are good choices. Charts and other key message delivery systems should have their own color scheme to differentiate them from background, aesthetic, or functional elements.

Certain dashboard software, such as iDashboards, may allow each user to change the dashboard colors to suit his or her taste. After all, color is a matter of individual taste. Nevertheless, most users will be satisfied with the default colors set by the administrator. Therefore, it is advised to use neutral colors that appeal to the largest segment of the population.

Colors may also play the role of content separators. For example, a company may use different background colors for various department dashboards. Other types of colored content differentiation may involve the basic dimensions of geography, product, and time. For example, each region or product group may be associated with a certain background color or tabs color. Such color protocols ensure presentation consistency and faster assimilation of information.

Chart Types

After resolving the base colors and graphics, the next area of design focus would be chart selections for presenting the key performance indicators (KPIs) and the underlying data. Selection of appropriate charts requires a good blend of analytical thinking and artistic rendering. Depending on the information being presented, certain chart types are most appropriate. For example, if relative shares need to be displayed, a pie chart is invariably the perfect fit. If a trend needs to be shown, a line chart works well. If two metrics need to be compared, a dual Column or Bar chart is a good rule of thumb.

However, in many instances the choice of charts may not be so obvious, requiring a degree of flexibility and creativity. Some of the contemporary, popular chart types include traffic lights, speedometers or dials, thermometers, donuts, and bubble charts. The choice of charts also depends on area constraints on the dashboard. For example, if the available area is narrow but high, a thermometer representation may work well instead of a speedometer, which requires more of a square-shaped area. Similarly, traffic lights may represent KPIs effectively within a relatively small area-just enough to have three small circles representing the three colored lamps in a traffic light. This model is also effective in conveying the relative performance of the charted KPIs: a red light jumps out at the viewer, drawing immediate attention.

Charts also demand internal color choices: the colors of the pies, bars, speedometer thresholds, and so on. The default colors supplied by any standard dashboard software are often well selected with a professional designer's input. However, a dashboard creator may have the liberty to change these colors at his or her discretion. If a dashboard is being deployed for a large audience, it is a good practice to seek advice from a professional designer in selecting the chart colors, so that they may have a positive visual appeal to the largest possible number of users. As every professional designer knows, there is a lot of science in color choice and its relative placements. Even more important, a spectrum of emotional messages is associated with each color.

Animation with Relevance

Animation with relevance is a powerful feature that conveys valuable information to the viewer. This feature uses advanced visual capabilities (if provided by the software) to meaningfully interact with users. For example, if a user has the mouse hovering over a certain slice on a pie chart, corresponding metrics within other charts on that dashboard related to that slice would automatically highlight. In another instance, a speedometer displaying metrics relevant to that pie will have its needle swing to the appropriate value through real-time animation.

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