User Centered Dashboards: A Visual Design Approach

Nicholas Pirolo / Friday, March 06, 2015

As a visual designer at Infragistics I am always keeping my eyes open for effective dashboard designs to lend inspiration to projects. By browsing design-rich websites like Pinterest, Behance, or Dribbble I easily find collections that stimulate me. Many of the dashboards I come across are beautiful or at the very least aesthetically pleasing, but are they effective dashboards? Well, that would really depend on who the user is and what their needs are. Aesthetics are an important element of dashboard design but to be effective a designer must first take the time to explore three key points: the purpose of the dashboard, who their audience is, and how they will use it. With this in mind I have created a list of questions a designer can ask to guide their decisions the next time they are tasked with creating a dashboard.



WHAT IS THE PURPOSE?

 The objective of a dashboard is to track the data that effects an organization’s goals. However, not only will goals vary depending on the organization and their departments so will the methods to track and achieve them. With this in mind it is important to target a dashboard’s distinct purpose. Stephen Few, an expert in data visualization, has highlighted some of these purposes in relation to visual design in his book Information Dashboard Design. I have then created some follow up questions to explore and support these different functions.

 A strategic purpose will generally serve high level decision makers and will provide a quick overview of the state of things by using static data. Questions to ask when designing to achieve a strategic goal: Which visual cues can be implemented to quickly detect and comprehend the metrics being expressed? Does each data visualization tell a different story? Is the dashboard as simple as it can be while still being effective? Can any non-data pixels be eliminated?

Strategic Dashboard design example
This dashboard will serve someone who needs a quick and simplified overview of the state of things. Each of the portions are expressing diverse yet essential figures which effect a long term goal. Large and bold type, bright colors, and an overall minimal design allow for quick detection of information.

An analytical purpose calls for a greater context of information, provides rich comparisons, and more extensive history through static data. With these objectives in mind it will be helpful to ask: Which data visualizations should be used to most effectively and thoroughly express complex metrics? Is exploration and interaction with the data being encouraged or supported? Are the patterns and links between data easily recognizable? How can visual design create acute focus?

Analytical dashboard design example
This example supports deep exploration of company cash flow. It compares an extensive history to projected and current figures. By citing sources of ‘inflow’ and ‘outflow’ these figures become explained in more detail and provide a broader context of information. Data visualizations are clear yet effective, and multiple questions are being answered within a single chart. Color is used to create relationships between metrics and there is a clear hierarchy of information. UI elements like toggle buttons and scroll bars support interaction and exploration.

An operational purpose is dynamic by nature. It will deal with continuously changing data and therefore needs to be monitored often to detect problems or opportunities that call for immediate action. Operational dashboards need to be simple yet provide crucial detail when needed. Questions to ask when designing for this purpose include: Are alerts informative and clear? Does the design support problem solving? Is the dashboard stressful to use?

Operational dashboard design example
This example is displaying live data (imagine the line charts and gauges continuously animating). While there are good reasons for light themed dashboards, this dark interface design provides opportunities for efficient usability as well. Dark interfaces fade into the background to allow the data visualizations and alerts to pop out. They also make the screen easier to look at which is essential for long periods of required monitoring, often the case for operational dashboards. Dark colors are calming too, helpful in the event of an emergency when rational decision making is important.

Although a dashboard may need to express more than a singular goal I have found this breakdown of function helpful to my own understanding of how a dashboard can serve its users and how visual design plays a role in reaching user goals.



WHO IS MY AUDIENCE?

By nature dashboards serve the executive and management levels of an organization; even so, the individuals of this user base will be diverse. To better understand who you are designing for, I suggest recognizing their experiences and abilities.

  • Consider the user’s tech savviness: How capable is the user with a particular digital platform or device? Are certain UI elements or gestural interactions common or unknown to them?
  • Understand their analytical capabilities: Are they able to recognize problems or opportunities based on the information presented?  Will they know what to do later or do they need to be guided to their next step? How can visual design enhance their capabilities?
  • Know the user’s prior familiarity with the information being presented: What do they already know? Will information need to be explained?

Find out their history with dashboard use: Does their organization have a legacy product? What did they like or not like about their past experiences with a dashboard?

Marketing campaign dashboard
The user of this dashboard is someone who not only has an extensive history with internet marketing campaigns but also holds the analytical capabilities needed to make the connections between these diverse data visualizations. The grouping of information, connections through color, and visual explanations of charts enhance the user’s ability to detect trends.

Exploring the background and characteristics of your audience will help to understand what the user group is like. Goals, values, attitudes, usage trends, and organizational responsibilities are just a few of the attributes that are important to identify. With these points in consideration more thoughtful and objective visual design ideas will begin to take shape.



HOW WILL THE DASHBOARD BE USED?

A dashboard can be used in many different ways so designing with the user’s work flow in mind will add structure to the design decision process.

  • Consider the user’s environment: Will they be using the dashboard in their own office or in the field? Will the user be in-doors, out-doors or both?
  • Know how the user will typically view the dashboard: Is it to be shown on a large presentation screen, a mobile device, or on a piece of paper?
  • Understand the amount of time the user has to review the data: Will they slowly and meticulously review each metric or do they need to quickly and deliberately scan the dashboard for key numbers?
  • Take into account collaboration: Would it serve the user to be able to share or export information from the dashboard? Does the dashboard need to format to print?
  • Connectivity of the dashboard may serve your audience as well: Will your audience require an internet connection to achieve their goals? Do they require live data sources?

Multiple workflow dashboard design
The user of this global sales reporting product has an active work flow but still requires access to this dashboard no matter where they are. This design takes into account the user’s multiple environments and solves the inherit problem of limited accessibility by creating corresponding desktop and mobile versions. While the desktop design displays the data visualization on a single screen the mobile version separates the visualizations allowing them to be still effective on smaller devices.  

By thinking about how the user intends to operate the dashboard a designer can begin to recognize which are the more constructive artistic principles/elements and how they should be implemented within the design.



The above breakdowns are not isolated from one another and therefore should be looked at side by side with no particular order or ranking of importance. In fact, I find that many of these categorized points influence one another simultaneously. On occasion you may be designing for a diverse user base and will therefore have contrasting answers to the above questions. If this may be the case I suggest prioritizing the elements deemed necessary in a way that will provide some value to all.

Since dashboards often express dense information and visualizations that are imperative to an organization’s success; good visual design implemented in a dashboard needs to be clear, practical, and elicit proper emotional responses. I am sure there are numerous methods and practices to achieve this but none of which will be truly effective without first establishing: the purpose of the dashboard, who is using it, and how they will use it.