Dashboard Design Mistake # 3 Poor layout choices

You have a good idea of which metrics should be on your dashboard, and now you need to decide where to put them. Upper left of the screen? Lower right? Somewhere in between?

How each metric type is laid out and visually organized has a significant impact on how easily users can get the information they need. Poor layout forces users to expend a lot of mental effort, and can ultimately lead them to abandon the dashboard in frustration.

Yet I regularly see dashboards in which the metrics appear to be laid out in the order in which the dashboard creator happened to think of them, or arranged based on how they happened to fit together geometrically, like a jigsaw puzzle.

The 3 guiding principles to good dashboard design:

There are three guiding principles to good dashboard design:

  1. The information most often checked by users goes in the upper left-hand corner;
  2. Related metrics should be grouped together; and
  3. Metrics that need to be compared should be next to each other.

Applying those principles will make any dashboard more user-friendly.

Here’s why:

1. Metrics that contain information that’s most often checked by users should be in the upper-left corner of your dashboard.

In cultures with written languages that are read from left to right and top to bottom, people intuitively look at the upper-left part of a page first.

So putting the information that users most often check in the upper left-hand corner of the screen cuts the time users spend searching for what they want.

Note that the information checked most often isn’t the same as the “most important” information.

For example, if you have a metric with the current day’s sales and another with quarterly sales results, the quarterly sales are certainly more important than any single day’s sales. The daily information will, however, be checked much more frequently (because it changes every day), and so should be positioned higher than, and to the left of, the quarterly data.

Unfortunately, I often see the prime, upper-left real estate being used for information that users will rarely or never need to check, such as a company logo….

2. Metrics that contain related data should be grouped together.

Daily and quarterly sales data figures are closely related, and in fact are just different slices of the same data set. So the second principle of dashboard design is that related information should be grouped together, with information most often checked to the left of, or above, the related data.

This way, users don’t have to “change gears” while scanning the dashboard by, for example, looking at sales data, and then at marketing data, and then at sales data again.

3. Metrics that contain data that users would find useful to compare should be placed next to one another.

It can sometimes be useful to compare unrelated bits of information. If that is the case, those Metrics should be grouped together.

For example, if you work for an online retailer, you may have created different metrics that contain sales, marketing and server/application performance metrics.

While these are not closely related types of data, it can be very useful to compare them so that users can see, for example, whether a dip in sales was caused by a decrease in online advertising referrals, or a performance problem with the server or application.

Again, it’s all about reducing the mental effort users have to make to find information that is useful for them.

I realize it is not always possible to respect these three considerations, which is why I’m offering them as “considerations,” not hard-and-fast rules for dashboard design. You’ll have to use your judgment to decide which consideration is more important in cases where you can’t respect all three.

But thinking about layout in these terms will enable you to create dashboards that users can “read” like a well-organized story, and not like a random arrangement of facts.

Next in this series: Common dashboard design mistake #4: Using chart types that don’t work well on data dashboards.


Originally published December 4, 2015, updated Apr, 09 2021

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