You can't see where you're going unless you've got the right view of the road. Whether it's the windshield showing the road ahead, the speedometer communicating your speed, or some other tool conveying vital information, well-designed dashboards are essential for making effective decisions.
Dashboards and data visualizations run a broad spectrum of effectiveness. Whether it's your garage, a SharePoint site, or any other storage space that's meant to be useful, clutter is the enemy of effectiveness. In this article we offer a few tips to help make your data visualizations as useful as possible for driving your actions and communicating your message.
We have all seen the dashboards that resemble this car: stuffed with the entire organization's metrics on a single screen with a font so small you have to zoom way in to read it. When your visualization tool looks more like a space shuttle command module than a data tool, you've got a problem. Below are five tips for avoiding this common pitfall while still sharing the necessary details.
Tip #1 - Less is More
Coco Chanel famously said, "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off. It's always better to be underdressed." This is even more true for the visual representation of data. Overpopulating a dashboard or data visual will result in user confusion. Designing a dashboard with more than 8-10 KPI's/OKR's per page will result in oversaturation.
The way you introduce the viewer to your messaging is extremely important. What if J.R.R. Tolkien had tried to explain all worlds, characters, native languages, and cultural backstories at the beginning of his epic story? It's doubtful you would've continued on to the story itself unless you were already fascinated or decided to skip the introduction and jump right into the narrative. Tolkien started his journey with a single sentence, "In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit."
The same is true for your dashboards: make a strong introduction and the reader will continue to the place where the full richness of detail is made available.
Tip #2 - Use Color Sparingly
In addition to providing too much information up front, dashboards often lose the audience through excessive color saturation. If everything is highlighted, then what are you really calling attention to? Using color sparingly in a dashboard will make your details jump off the page without having to utilize wide spectrum contrast.
Colors should be used to draw your eye's attention to an area in need. Instead of using strong colors, consider muting your standard colors instead. If all your items are highlighted, as you see in the sample scorecard image, then it's extremely challenging to discern details. Consider this simple example of a black-and-white to-do list:
Things to Do:
Write more Blogs on Data
Develop an impactful Sales Dashboard
Share it with Friends to get their impression
When you mute the colors, the items requiring more immediate attention jump off the screen, even in a monochromatic color palette.
Color can be a powerful tool on a dashboard. It will dictate the starting point of your user's visual navigation. If there's no obvious focal point for the eyes to fall on, then the viewer has no clear starting point and has to search around for where to begin.
To find the focal point, squint your eyes at your completed dashboard—the first thing you notice is the focal point. Adjusting your focal point relies on strategies we will discuss next, but for now, know this: use color sparingly and you will have an easier time capturing the viewer's attention.
Tip #3 - Tell me about your Dashboard, without Telling me about your Dashboard
The hardest part about creating an impactful dashboard is doing it without the use of words. A dashboard is typically utilized when the creator is absent, so you can't explain the layout, the intended messaging, and data scenarios. A visualization does, however, contain keys and legends, chart titles, and labels—these are how you guide the user without being present to explain the layout. Use these tools as you would an outline or section headers in a report or presentation.
Adding clear titles to each of your graphs enables the user to understand the data they're reviewing before they roll up their sleeves and dive in. The judicious use of data labels, tooltips, or hover-over details further supports the user experience when the creator is absent. The more intuitive you can make the consumption of the information, the more clearly your message will resonate with users. Keep it simple, clean, and direct in delivery, remembering always that clutter is the enemy of a good dashboard.
Tip #4 - Interactions provide Depth & Richness
Everyone these days is click happy. From search engine results to YouTube videos and the many hyperlinks we encounter every second, our user experience relies on interactivity. We all appreciate the ability to feel engaged in our journey. Dashboard interactions are the same. A simple drop-down menu can add multiple slices of data without adding much to the screen that could function as distracting clutter. Adding links to supporting reports or detailed scorecard helps create an application feel without adding clutter. Finally, enabling graphs and visualizations to function as filters for the dashboard contents saves on critical screen real estate.
For example, if your dashboard features a map showing values by state, then allow filtering of all the other on-screen visuals by selecting a state in the map. The most effective dashboards give users the capacity to customize their journey and pursue their own questions without undue limitation or inconvenience.
Tip #5 - Experiment on your Friends
Once you're done with all of the other tips and feel your dashboard is ready, then it's time to run some experiments on other people. Family and friends can be a valuable focus group showing you what you might've missed because of your own intimate knowledge about what you're trying to do. Ask them for a couple key pieces of feedback: 1) What did you notice first? 2) What are you able to conclude from the information presented? 3) Could you easily do everything you wanted to do? 4) How hard did you have to work to get the information you wanted? 5) Is there anything unclear about the presentation?
The goal of the experiment is an objective measurement of clarity, focal points, and messaging from someone who doesn't know your intentions. Take this feedback seriously, but be sure to choose someone who will be brutally honest because first drafts are never perfect.
Dashboards and data visualizations are the key to communicating with your colleagues. Creating effective and efficient visuals requires a subtle touch to ensure that the data says everything it needs to say, nothing more and nothing less. Remember, data visualization is data with storytelling, not storytelling with data. Keep it factual and let the data do the talking.
If you're unsure how to get started, reach out to the Baleen Data to discuss your dashboards and data visualizations.