Data visualization is more than neat graphs and pretty colors. It conveys information, and you have to speak the language to communicate effectively. If you’re new to dashboarding, one of the most important questions you can ask yourself is “What’s the difference between a bad dashboard and a good one?” If you’re relatively fluent in data viz, ask yourself this: “How can I take a good dashboard and make it great?”
Onward and Upward: The Importance of Making your Dashboards Better
Helmut Schmidt, a German politician, wasn’t talking about dashboards when he said, “The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement.” He was right about one thing, though: You can’t make things better without understanding where you need to grow. The same concept applies to your next data visualization initiative. So how do you take the desire to make your reporting better and turn it into a clean, beautiful dashboard? It’s easy:
- Keep it modern
- Keep it minimal
- Avoid mistakes
Insight #1: Modernize Your Dashboard Design
Nobody likes an outdated anything, and that includes dashboards. If you want your dashboard to stand out – or at least not distract is viewers with unsightly design elements, shoot for a modern design. A good dashboard conveys accurate, timely information. The list doesn’t end here, though. An effective dashboard (or component, such as an individual graph or chart), should also have nice dashboard design. You don’t have to be a graphic designer, but you should keep an eye on how your dashboard design supports and interacts with the data. If the design doesn’t enhance the data – or even distracts from it – remove that visual or replace it with something better.
Here are a few ways to keep your design as up-to-date as your data:
- Don’t use 3D effects. They’re distracting and don’t add any value to your data.
- Drop the drop shadows like they’re hot. They can actually distort your data by making slices and bar graphs look larger than they really are.
- Don’t be afraid of white space. The space between your data sets can be as important as the data itself – make sure you have plenty of it!
- Keep your labels concise. Labels exist to help your users understand charts and graphs – no more, no less – so keep them plain and simple.
A Few Words About Color
If “See the data, taste the data” is a viable tagline for your dashboard, you might be using too many colors. When it comes to coloring your data effectively, you’ll need to pick a scheme and stick to it. This should include your main color, complimentary color that fit into the same scheme, and a minimal number of accent colors you can use to highlight the most important data sets in your dashboard. If your dashboard involves sets of color that represent different things, include a key so users know what each color represents.
Read next: Developing Your (Color) Palette
Insight #2: Minimize Your Dashboard
There’s a reason high-brow restaurants serve seemingly small portions, and it isn’t just about presentation. Scarcity actually increases the overall dining experience. Why? An overwhelming serving of any food, not matter how delicious, muddles flavors and detracts from the dining experience. The same thing goes for your data. No, you don’t want to leave users starving for the information they need, but you do want to give them bite-sized pieces of data they can digest easily. If you’re heaping data onto users’ plates like potato salad at a backyard BBQ, pare it down; otherwise they won’t know what’s important and what isn’t. Here are a few ways to make sure you’re only display the data your audience needs:
- Start with the most important metric. Only include additional data sets that support this or another facet of your audience’s goals.
- If you need to include granular data, create drilldowns. These allow users to click on a specific data set and explore it deeper – without including every detail on the main page of the dashboard.
Insight #3: Avoid (Common) Mistakes
You can avoid many common pitfalls by creating a dashboard that’s modern and minimalistic, but these additional guiding principles can help you make data even more effective:
- Make detailed sets of data easy to skim so users can quickly find what they’re looking for.
- Align each piece of your dashboard so columns and rows match up appropriately.
- Don’t be afraid to use line breaks to differentiate between headings and subheadings.
- Always align text to the left, just like you would a book, blog, or article.
- If you have a table or bar graph, don’t alternate between colors unless each color represents something different.
- If you don’t need to include a box, border, or line, then don’t; they can be distracting and create clutter.