3 simple rules for intuitive dashboard design

3 simple rules for intuitive dashboard design

There are many articles out there about how to design gorgeous dashboards. In this piece, however, I want to discuss how to design functionally intuitive dashboards.

If you've ever found yourself looking at your dashboard like this...

unimpressed cart

...there's a good chance it's because a few of the rules I'll mention here weren't taken into consideration.

Poor layout choices in the early stages of building a dashboard can lead to those kind of “Where’s Waldo?” moments that force you and your team to spend energy looking for or otherwise trying to understand specific metrics or data points on your dashboard.

Dashboards take work to build, but they shouldn't take work to understand once they're built.

Those that do will likely go unused.

3 layout rules to follow for great dashboard design

Here are the rules. I'll expand on each below:

  1. If your user's primary language reads left to right, your dashboard should do the same.
  2. Group together related metrics.
  3. Discover and display the stories of unrelated data.

Let’s dive a little deeper to understand these guiding principles better.

Design your dashboard to read left-to-right

Where did your eyes go as soon as you opened this blog post? Likely to the top left of the page. That’s how you have been taught to read, and it's a habit that has been reinforced because most experiences on the web have been designed to accommodate it.

By "read left to right" I also mean that the most frequently viewed metrics and KPIs should go in the upper left-hand corner. Here at Klipfolio, we often talk about the importance of understanding your dashboard in a glance.

The best way to do this, and to therefore experience the resulting productivity, is to put the data where you are trained to look.

Of course, if you’re designing a dashboard in a language that follows another method of reading, build accordingly.

Here's how we think of it:

this is an example of intuitive business dashboard design

As you can see, the information a user checks most often should appear in the upper-left hand side of the dashboard, and information should then proceed to the right and then back to the left to form a Z shape.

The importance of KPIs, as we cover extensively at Mindful Metrics, is not considered in this design element because the most important information isn't necessarily what the user needs to check most frequently.

For example, for many teams, Quarterly Sales will be more important than Today’s Sales, but a user is much more likely to be looking for Today’s Sales regularly because it's the metric that matters most to their daily performance.

Dashboards are more likely to be integrated into a person’s daily work habits when they display the most relevant information and truly simplify the process of finding that information.

Related data belongs together

If one metric relates to another, save your user some time and group them together. Grouping follows the same principle of dashboard design we just covered: the information checked the most should be placed to the left of, or above, the related data.

Users shouldn’t have to pause their train of thought or wander off looking for a related metric on a dashboard. Data points should flow logically and intuitively.

Here's one example:

the best dashboard design follows certain organizational roles

This type of dashboard design would be good to monitor specific campaigns or departmental testings. When the information is paired in this way, it’s far easier to make inferences from the data.

Group together unrelated data to tell a different story

Understanding how each facet of your business works together is another great use case for dashboards.

Unrelated data is often cast aside, never making its way onto a dashboard.

And while it may seem against intuition to pair unrelated data, metrics about sales, marketing and server/application, for example, may show an important story when placed together.

This strategy can help a user see, for example, if a decrease in last month's sales was related to a decrease in social media campaign performance, server response time, or a variety of other seemingly unrelated factors.

the fundamental principles of great dashboard design

Understanding the relationships between your different business processes can give you insight into the big picture that you may not have been able to see by maintaining a laser-like focus on one particular KPI.

This type of design is great for a more general dashboard—one not used for a specific department—or for an executive/manager to maintain a bird's-eye view.

Concluding thoughts on optimized dashboard layout

Dashboards are meant to make your life easier. They are meant to quickly show you what you need to see, and then ultimately get out of your way so you can drive results.

Understanding the fundamentals of dashboard design, and following these layout principles, will have a huge impact on how your team interprets, responds to and monitors data.

See Also:

Dashboard design: Serve yourself, not the data

How to set up a TV dashboard for free


Originally published July 26, 2017, updated Mar, 31 2021

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