Dashboards and Data Viz | Design | Tips & Tricks

Organizing and deploying data with dashboards can revolutionize the way your organization uses information. Like any tool, using and building dashboards requires skill. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in the data business; whether you’re just starting out, or see sparklines and scatter plots in your sleep, there’s always room to grow. From design best practices to database skills, getting the most out of your data visualization means leveling up. Here are a few ways you can not only build your data visualization repertoire with new skills, but use these skills to create masterful dashboards the help your organization as a whole.

Master Design Best Practices

Master Design Best Practices

The masterful use of design elements set great dashboards apart from the “good enough” ones. While design trends can change over time, there are some principles that don’t waver when it comes to visualizing data:

  • Keep things simple. Excellent dashboards provide complex information in a simplistic, easy-to-understand manner. Simply put, the goal of any data visualization is to represent complicated information using charts and graphs so viewers understand it quickly. But boiling down large sets of data into a clean, organized dashboard is easier said than done. Just remember: If there are two ways to accomplish the same thing in your dashboard, choose the simpler option.
  • Don’t be afraid to use negative space. Simplicity means negative space. On a dashboard, this refers to the space between your graphs, charts, and information. Many new dashboarders assume negative space doesn’t serve a purpose. In reality, it’s very important. By using negative space, you can guide viewers’ eyes through the dashboard toward the most relevant information on the page. Additionally, negative space makes each piece of the dashboard more prominent; whereas a cluttered report distracts the user from finding the information they need.
  • Pick the right charts. Not all charts and graphs are created equally. At least, not in every situation. One of the most important parts of data visualization is choosing the right images to depict your data. Consider how each chart functions and how they relate to information you need to communicate. Pie charts, for example, can’t depict time effectively. So if you need to show users how a statistic changed within the last month, consider a bar or line graph instead.

Brush Up On Your Database Skills

Brush Up On Your Database Skills post

Building a master-level dashboard takes more than a designer’s eye; you’ll need to focus on the technical side of things, too. Even if you don’t have advanced programming experience, it’s important to understand the basics of your database and how it relates to the final product: your dashboard.

Regardless of the database system you use, a basic understanding of SQL will help you to retrieve the information you need. A common case is the use of a relational database – the kind that stores pieces of information in multiple tables that relate to each other. To pull the correct data set into your report, you’ll need to identify qualifiers for the data you want to pull. This could be something as simple as a date, the ID number of a sales transaction, or the zip code where a delivery took place.

Let’s say we’re interested in pulling logistics data for supplies delivered within a certain time frame. Those are your parameters. In order to get that information, you’ll need to run a query for shipping IDs, limited by the applicable delivery locations and the time-frame you want to analyze.

When it comes to pulling information from your database using SQL, the possibilities are endless. If you’re somewhat new to this process, it may seem a little overwhelming. Here are a few tips to help you optimize your queries:

  • Convert your spreadsheets into database tables. This is simple, but imperative. If you have a mountain of data stored in Excel spreadsheets, import it into database tables first. By doing so, you can not only save time but also avoid mix-ups between your database server and information stored in other formats.
  • Watch out for “NULL.” In short, many beginner SQL users confuse the value “NULL” with “zero.” In reality, NULL is more equitable with “unknown.” While it might mean the value is zero, it doesn’t behave as zero in math functions, date filtering, etc.

Prep Your Data Properly

Prep Your Data Properly

Great dashboards start with proper planning, and one of the best ways you can prep your data is by implementing an ETL (Extract, Transform, Load) tool. In short, ETL takes raw data and automatically pulls the information you want to analyze. During the transform phase, data is filtered, aggregated, pivoted, and cleaned for future use. Finally, it loads that data into your data warehouse so you can easily sync it in your dashboard. ETL is useful for reducing unwanted data or summarizing large quantities of information so your reports can focus on a specific analysis.

There are two basic ways to build your ETL Pipeline:

  • Batch Processing – Batch processing is the traditional way to create an ETL pipeline and is useful for large quantities of information. Using this method, you will need to gather reference data, extract information from the data sources, and validate the data (determine whether the result contains the values you expect). The final stages of batch processing involve transformation (removing data you don’t need, or “cleaning it), staging your data so you can roll back changes if an error exists.
  • Stream Processing – Stream processing allows you extra data from sources and import it into your database in real time. Using stream processing, you can transform smaller batches of data and save them instantaneously to your data store. In order to create a pipeline this way, you’ll need to use a processing tool which can extract the data, run it through your application, and then transform and load the data into your data warehouse.

The iDashboards Data Hub lets users prep data quickly and accurately – even without much ETL experience. Using a drag and drop interface with the Data Hub, you can blend data sets from spreadsheets, data warehouses, and databases into one congruent space. Additionally, iDashboards Data Hub lets you connect to web applications like Google Analytics, Salesforce, and QuickBooks.

Read next: Data Preparation, Demystified

Learn, Learn, Learn!

Dashboard master

To stay on top of your database and dashboard visualization game, take the time to learn as much as possible. Read articles – like the ones we provide in our blog – and take online courses to explore new ideas, tools, and techniques for creating masterful dashboards. For anyone in the business of data visualization, there’s a lot of good data about data on the internet. Use it! Over time, you will not only refine your understanding of data visualization and how to use it best, but refine the dashboards you create as well.

To learn more about iDashboards and how you can transform your data reporting, contact us today!

Alternative Text

Sean Warren Program Manager for Implementation and Solutions Consulting @iDashboards

Sean has helped hundreds of clients transform their rows and columns into beautiful dashboards and is currently focused on client on-boarding, consulting, and retention. He has a passion for non-profit success with experience in QuickBooks, Microsoft SQL Server, and various data-prep tools. When he's not building dashboards, you'll find him on a mountain bike with his son (Arthur) or vacuuming fur from 2 Siberian Huskies (Nymeria and Sven).


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *