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Dashboard Trifecta: It Helps to be Beautiful

December 21, 2010

In a world of time deprivation and information overload, we can all go for a good dashboard.  When you create a great dashboard, do you know why it works so well?  Consequently, when a dashboard turns out poorly, do you know why that is?

A great dashboard (and possibly your ideal mate?) must hit three marks: brains, beauty and usability:

  • Brains: The right elements are measured. Results prompt thought, decision and action.
  • Beauty: Draws the reader to the data. Captures attention by minimizing distractions.
  • Usability: Practical and adaptable. Fit for the purpose and the benefits justify the cost.

Hit the trifecta and the dashboard will transcend beyond a mere collection of data points to become a powerful executive tool. Missing even one of the three elements will noticeably reduce the dashboard’s effectiveness.

Beauty (i.e., Functional Design)

If you’re a back office dweller like me, you exercise your left brain all day.  You are a pro at analyzing, reasoning, planning, evaluating and concluding logically (you sound wonderful, by the way).  And the visually oriented right brain?  Well, it kicks in much less often, and is generally called on when deciding between Arial or Times New Roman font for that report.  And what a hard choice that can be!

So when it comes to creating dashboards, unsurprisingly, we often put little emphasis on incorporating Beauty.  That is a mistake.  Beauty goes beyond making the dashboard “look pretty.”  Incorporating beauty into a dashboard is the concept of leveraging functional design to create an environment that is most conducive for analysis.  That means:

  • Creating optimal readability through good content placement and use of visual cues to direct the reader.
  • Removing distractions or noise that detracts the reader from the data.

Here is the thing. Most of the time, noise and poor readability are built into the dashboard unknowingly, and readers/users pick up those distractions intuitively, which results in a shift of focus away from the actual data.  Hint: If you have ever thought to yourself that a piece of content looked “busy” or “off” but can’t explain why, your brain is probably being distracted by poor design. So here are a few tricks that I learned along the way to help dress a dashboard for optimal readability and minimal noise, so that the data can come through loud and clear. Let’s start with color.

Background Color

Treat the background like a clean canvas and avoid anything ostentatious.  While we want everyone to pay attention to our dashboard, using a wild background color will get you the wrong kind of attention.  The dashboard’s background should be very plain and unobtrusive.  In fact, it’s almost always best to keep the background color white or a faint gray, because you may need to use a secondary background color later to separate different bodies of data.

Cell and Text Shading

Choose muted colors over bright colors. Harmonious colors invite. Opposing colors distract. The dashboard should look calm and professional, not loud and disorganized.  And the chosen color combination can play a big part (Yep. Colors can look disorganized).  You don’t need to be a color expert to pick clean, inviting and professional-looking colors.  The secret?  Stick with subdued and muted shades.  No matter which hue, muted colors always complement each other to give off a “pulled together” look.

See the difference here:

Visual Prompts

Some colors have inherent meaning.  For example: Green = Good.  Red = Bad.  Yellow = Warning.  Personally, I love to use Gray.  In certain situations, however, Gray can denote “Not Applicable.”  Using colors that contract their inherent meaning will confuse the reader.  Respect these visual prompts whenever possible.  Here is an exaggerated example:

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