Dashboard design: it’s all about communication

Dashboard design is how best to  communicate the stories the underlying data is trying to tell you.

Every good B2B product these days has to provide some sort of dashboard to let its customers see into the data from a ¬†higher view. Dashboards should provide a narrative of what’s happening under the hood – so why do we make people do all the work? Repustate’s old dashboard for social media analytics flat out sucked. It was clunky, ugly, wasted valuable screen real estate on non-essential items and had very low engagement levels as a result. So we decided to redesign it.

Thank you, Stephen Few

The first step was to get a copy of Stephen Few’s book, Information Dashboard Design. Published in 2006, it covers a variety of topics related to dashboard design and presenting information. Although some of the screen shots in the book are dated, the same principles that applied then still apply now. Here are the main takeaways we got from this great book:

  1. No clutter – remove any elements that don’t add value
  2. Use colours to communicate a specific idea, not just for fun
  3. Place the most important graphs/numbers/conclusions at the top
  4. Provide feedback where possible – make the dashboard tell a story

If you read those 4 things, you’re probably thinking, “Well, duh, that’s obvious.” And yet, take a look at the dashboards you use everyday; they’re loaded with visual noise that is irrelevant, poorly placed, or difficult to make heads or tails from. Here’s a screen shot of Repustate’s new dashboard:

Repustate's new dashboard
Repustate’s new dashboard. Click for larger image.

Here’s a run down of various features and attributes of this new design:

  1. Minimal “chrome” (visual clutter) on the page. The side bar can slide out, but by default is closed and each of the menu items is also a hover menu so you never have to open the menu itself to see what each item means.
  2. The Repustate logo is in the sidebar menu and is visible only when expanded. At this point, does a user really need to be reminded of what they’re using – they know. Hide your logos.
  3. Top left area of the page provides a common action – download the raw data. No wasted space.
  4. Most important information for our users is sentiment trend over time – put that at the top. We colour coded the “panels” depending on the sentiment and also have a background image (thumb up, thumb down, question mark) depending on the value. The visuals align with the data itself.
  5. Summary statements tell the user exactly what’s happening – don’t make them guess. We have a bunch of rules set up that determine which sentences appear when. Within seconds, our users know exactly what’s going on – their dashboard is communicating with them directly. You can’t believe how much engagement increases as a result.
  6. Easy to read graphs & lists. Minimal clutter and minimal labelling. If your graphs and charts are done properly, the labelling of data points should be unnecessary.

In less than 20s, any executive will be able to glean from this exactly what’s going on. With more drilling down, clicking some links, they can get deeper insights, but the point is, to get the “executive summary”, they shouldn’t have to. We’re telling them if they’re doing well or not. We’re telling them what’s changed since last time. Ask yourself what information can your dashboards communicate and then make them do so. Your customers will love you for it.

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