Best Practices for Creating Useful Dashboards

Introduction to Information Dashboards

Data visualization is a general term that describes any effort to help people understand the significance of data by placing it in a visual context. Patterns, trends and correlations that might go undetected in text-based data can be exposed and recognized easier with data visualization software.

This concept is not new.  Data has been visualized for at least 240 years, ever since Joseph Priestley first used timeline charts to plot the lifespan of people.  Inspired by Priestley’s work and his own childhood conducting rudimentary science experiments with his brother, William Playfair created the bar chart for his work “Commercial and Political Atlas”.  In that work, in 1786, Playfair used a bar chart to display the imports and exports of Scotland to 17 other countries for the year 1781. This is widely regarded as the first of a graph to show discrete comparisons.  This was what started the journey that lead us to where we are today, a period of business intelligence and information visualization renaissance.


[Image: Josepf Priestley/public domain ]

 [Image: William Playfair/public domain]

Our world is dominated by charts and graphs, from the news showing economic performance or that annoying friend of yours on social media that posted their Strava story for 2017 to show off how far they ran or biked or hiked.  Even the infamous maps of the United States showing various states colored red and blue that people become obsessed with every four years. Charts and graphs are everywhere.

Dashboards are where these charts can work together to reach their full potential.  Multiple, related information visualizations working together, where the charts can all be consumed almost simultaneously.   Without any distraction from having to scroll to another part of the window or having to change between screens or tabs in web browsers.  Dashboards are the pinnacle of information presentation systems providing support for organizational decision-making activities. A well-crafted and successful dashboard makes a decision maker an informed decision maker.  

In a world that is shrinking, and accelerating daily, access to useful and accurate information is growing in importance every day.  Everyone needs to make informed decisions. From the everyday commuter and their need to understand the performance of their vehicle in a quick snapshot (the etymological home of the term “dashboard”), to the corporate executive deciding on the direction of a company and therefore the professional and likely financial well being of all of their employees.  Informed decision making is the reason for the dashboards existence.

The ever-growing visual clutter, like we are subject to today, makes it so decision makers need all the information possible before action can be taken or before a reaction can be planned, prioritized, and executed in all different aspects of life; including business.  These decisions are made sometimes on tight timelines so the weight on the importance of being able to gather and process information quickly is great.

There are more than just superficial reasons for making charts and graphs visually appealing.  One of the most obvious reason is physiological. The human eye recognizes a difference in patterns and sizes much quicker than it can verify the difference in two numbers.  It is called pattern recognition.  Dashboards are meant to capitalize on that physiological mandate.

In this course, we will provide you with the building blocks for creating beautiful, informative, and most of all, useful dashboards.  We will provide you with some key best practices and even some checklists to follow to provide either yourself or the decision makers that depend on you the tools that will turn them into the most informed decision makers they can be.