A business’s data is its most critical asset, and a great dashboard is the key to understanding it. Dashboards are everywhere today in both consumer and commercial circles, but as familiar as they are, designing them can be harder than it seems. Effective dashboard UI design is crucial to get right but easy to get wrong.
Why Is Dashboard UI Design Important?
Today’s businesses revolve around data, but if people can’t interpret that information or understand its context, they won’t be able to use it effectively. Tools like customer relationship management (CRM) platforms make managing data easier by consolidating it into one easy-to-access place. However, if these dashboards are confusing, misleading or hard to use, those benefits go away.
The easier it is to use a dashboard, the more value users will be able to get from the data it represents. By contrast, poor UI design limits how well people can understand or use their data.
In a business context, bad dashboard UIs can lead to costly mistakes or inefficiencies. Poorly designed consumer-facing dashboards can drive users away from a platform. In both cases, good user interfaces are crucial.
Key Dashboard Design Principles
While dashboards can represent any kind of data for any audience, there are some commonalities across all effective ones. Regardless of the specifics, all good dashboard designs are accurate, clear and usable.
One of the most important considerations for dashboard UI design is presenting information accurately. Inaccurate data costs businesses $12.9 million every year, and accurate information portrayed inaccurately has the same effect as low-quality data.
It’s easy to input numbers incorrectly or mislabel a data set when setting up a dashboard. If designers don’t double-check for these errors, their tools won’t accurately reflect the data in question, and end users may not realize that until it’s too late.
Many dashboards are also customizable, which presents more opportunities for inaccuracies to arise. Oversights in coding could make the software powering these tools mix information up when users change the view or input different parameters. If that happens, the personalization that’s supposed to help users will only hinder them.
Similarly, dashboard UI design should also make the information easy to understand. If text is too small to read or there’s too much of it, users will struggle to use the dashboard efficiently. If labels are vague or use unfamiliar terms, the data may be of little use to the user, even if it’s accurate.
Charts and graphs are an excellent and popular way to clarify information, but many tools make mistakes in data visualization, too. A lack of consistent scaling in a graph will make its visuals tell a different story than its data. Similarly, if different illustrations in the dashboard don’t have a consistent color scheme, it may make them harder to understand.
Clarity is about efficiency just as much as it is about accuracy. It’s important for dashboards to offer true-to-life and relevant data, but the best designs also let users make sense of this data in less time.
Dashboard designs should also consider usability. Different visualizations work better for different people, and some users will want slightly different information than others. Consequently, users should be able to customize various aspects of the dashboard to get what they want.
Because being dynamic is such an important part of an effective dashboard, UIs must accommodate for easy modifications. Customizability doesn’t do users much good if it’s unclear how they can tailor their results. Similarly, if the process of changing visualizations is too complex, users won’t likely take advantage of it.
A great dashboard UI makes it immediately obvious that users can adjust it and shows how they can at the same time. The more options users have and the easier it is to change those settings, the more useful the dashboard will be.
Dashboard UI Design Best Practices
Dashboard UIs should center around these three principles, but there are many ways to interpret those considerations. To help craft the best UI possible, here are some important best practices to keep in mind.
Start by Determining the Dashboard’s Goal
The best way to ensure a successful dashboard UI design is to outline its purpose at the start. UI in any context is ultimately about meeting users’ needs, so you must determine how they’ll use the dashboard to know how to design it.
There are three basic types of dashboards you can use as a starting point:
- Operational dashboards
- Analytical dashboards
- Strategic dashboards
Operational dashboards are the most common and show the progress of an operation in real-time. They include summaries and key performance indicators (KPIs) across multiple areas and are great for project management or time-sensitive use. Analytical dashboards are similar but focus on trends and past data, making them ideal for deeper dives and troubleshooting.
Strategic dashboards are the most streamlined. They present overviews of KPIs and trends of the most mission-critical elements across a wider operation to enable long-term decision-making and quick summaries.
Prioritize the Most Relevant Information
With the end goal and ideal dashboard type in mind, designers can determine what data to show in the tool. It’s tempting to provide as much information as possible, but excessive information quickly becomes counterproductive.
It’s better to focus on a smaller but more relevant set of details. A sales dashboard should put monthly earnings and transaction numbers at the top and save specifics like monthly trends for individual items on another page. Alternatively, social media dashboards should prioritize monthly visitors, engagement rates and overall impressions.
Focusing on the most critical information and leaving other data out makes dashboards less cluttered and more helpful. You can always provide a link to another page where users can find contextual information.
Choose Colors Carefully
Color choice is another important factor in dashboard UI design. Contrasting colors highlight important elements, so they’re a good choice for the most impactful KPIs on the page. Be careful not to overuse bright colors, though, as that can make the dashboard difficult to read.
Maximize white space between illustrations and labels to aid navigation. Make sure your color choice aligns with common color associations, like using red for things that need attention and green for positive changes.
Be sure the dashboard uses colors consistently. If one graph uses colors to differentiate between metrics, use the same colors for the same metrics in other illustrations. If you don’t, the dashboard could be easy to misinterpret.
Remember that the best dashboards can adapt to different users’ needs. Generally speaking, the more customizable the UI is, the better, but too many options can also make things needlessly complex or lead to choice paralysis.
A great way around that issue is to offer several dashboard templates. Create two to four presets that provide different data ranges, provide other types of charts or prioritize different information. That way, it only takes one or two clicks for users to get a view that suits their needs.
For more refined adjustments, enable drag-and-drop functionality wherever possible. This will streamline customization, which is crucial to meeting multiple user needs at once.
Make the Most of Your Dashboard UI Design
Dashboards are a great way to make sense of data, but only if they work well. As data insights become more important to more people, dashboard UI design will become an increasingly crucial practice.
Every dashboard has unique needs and users, but some principles and best practices are the same across them all. Start here to make the most helpful and user-friendly dashboard possible.
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.