Best Practices for Creating Useful Dashboards

Arranging Your Charts as a Dashboard

Arranging the charts is where the science of a dashboard project starts to cede some of its control to art.  There are many things to consider when arranging and sizing charts and selecting fonts and colors. Please keep a few principles in mind when visualizing, arranging, and selecting these colors and fonts.

No scrolling

As stated in Chartio’s blog, “When an individual dashboard has so much information on it that scrolling is required, the power of the dashboard is diminished because the information that lives there is intended to be viewed together.  Each piece of information on the dashboard is meant to give the reader the ability to answer a part of the central question of the dashboard. These charts work together to answer the question so if the reader can’t see them together making them work together is much more difficult.”  You need to keep the charts and dashboards together on a single screen. So your audience can consume this data in the short order that is intended when using a dashboard. These charts, remember, are being used to answer a central question, or premise and grouping them together will give the charts a chance to work together.

Understandably, each company and each team within that company might have different technology at their disposal and that means that the size of each screen can change, or the location of “the fold” changes.  This is another reason why it is important to understand your audience and how they are going to be consuming the information you present. If the dashboard is going to be on a TV that’s on the wall for an entire department to see, the location of the fold will be different from that of a laptop computer, or desktop computer, or mobile device.  Understanding the resolution of the screen this dashboard will be viewed on is one thing for this dashboard and knowing the limitations of your medium is the second. For example, in Chartio on an iMac Pro 13.5” screen, in a Google Chrome window, there are 47 grid squares available in the vertical direction and 83 grid squares in the horizontal direction.  

Use the right charts

We said it in a previous lesson; Certain charts do not visualize some datasets well, and certain charts can not visualize some datasets at all.  Knowing the difference is a very valuable position to be in. We have copied below a chart type decision tree that will be a great way to help get the right chart type.

Using the flowchart we provided, or something similar will assist you in your pursuit of selecting the right chart.

Group directly related metrics and charts together

This can’t be overstated; grouping the charts together so that they can be easily viewed, and easily viewed together so the user can consume the data in short order is of a high importance, it may be the most important factor in arranging the charts.  If you have a line chart showing user count over time but it is in the bottom right-hand corner of your dashboard. Then the current user count single value chart is on the left margin, the eyes might need to move quickly back and forth across the dashboard to be consumed together, thus eliminating one of the main benefits of the dashboard.

In the Dashboard we have been working to create all along with this lesson, we ended up with thirteen individual charts, monitoring eight different metrics.  Some metrics were monitored twice so the current status, as well as a trend analysis over time, could be analyzed. When we started to create the dashboard we ended up with thirteen charts in three zones, by grouping like charts, or metrics that worked together to give a larger picture.

Group like charts together.  If a specific metric or KPI must be broken down further into more detail and that detail is deemed at a crucial enough level, these two types of charts should be right next to each other.

Avoid Too Much Information (TMI)

Overloading the dashboard with too much information is not just a catchphrase that people are putting on their social media with a hashtag.  Information overload is another huge potential for deteriorating the power of the dashboard. If the information needs to be zoomed in on, you are effectively causing an inadvertent scrolling effect.  That particular chart can probably be summarized differently and the detail that is extraneous can be used in a drill down dashboard or report.

Colors are important

This is something that needs to be truly considered.  For both a domestic and international audience, color can not only have a huge impact on the viewer’s ability to consume the information but it can also be culturally insensitive and even offensive.  This is not something to take lightly especially when your audience might be potential customers that you are trying to convince to buy your service or product. Also, current customers might find something offensive and might consider taking their business elsewhere.

Take the colors red and green for example.  In the United States, roughly 8 percent of men that are of Northern European descent suffer from red-green color blindness.  That is that both of those two colors appear as an almost grayish hue and often cannot be differentiated when side by side. In a 2015 NFL Football game between the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets the NFL tried a color scheme for the uniforms that was completely red for the Bills and completely green for the Jets.  Many fans could not tell the difference.  The NFL “Color Rush” campaign was a potential failure.  The NFL failed to consider colorblind sensitivity in the US.

[Image: Ben Solomon for The New York Times]

These are not the only things to consider when selecting color patterns.  Cultural sensitivity is a big issue. Culturally, in the US red and green are diametrically opposed to one another representing stop and go, or good and bad.  In parts of Africa, red is the color of mourning, in the case of death. In China, red carries with it a positive association with things like loyalty, success, and courage.  Please take careful consideration of both cultural and physiological concerns when selecting a color scheme for your dashboard.

Conclusion

There are textbooks written about how to arrange charts on a dashboard.  One that you will find as a particularly helpful source is Stephen Few’s “Information Dashboard Design”.  This is an important issue, and you will find more success if you follow some of the guidelines we have outlined above.