Let's start by thinking about the criteria of a well-designed website and then apply that to business dashboards.
What makes a great website
There are millions of websites out there, each with its own audience and purpose. However, all great websites have 3 traits in common:
- They have a clear purpose
- They have intuitive, helpful navigation
- They give users a reason to return
Designing web dashboards
A web-based dashboard, like Klipfolio Dashboard, is accessed using web browsers or mobile browsers and viewed alongside other websites and services like email, social networks, news sites, blogs, and more. In other words, users sign in to a web dashboard with the same expectations as they would for any other website. This has important implications for designing web dashboards.
Clarity of purpose
There is nothing worse than someone visiting your website and going "what am I doing here?" The same is true for web-based dashboards. Users should be able to sign on to their data dashboard and immediately understand what they are looking at, eg: "How is my business performing?"
To achieve this in practice takes some smart data visualizations that simplify complex data into manageable chunks. Just like paragraph chunking and white-space aid web visitors in reading and finding information, appropriate visuals help dashboard users immediately grasp what they are viewing.
The tendency for both websites and dashboards is to either give too much information or to not give enough. One suggestion is to create an "executive" tab that shows key performance metrics that summarize your data and to use additional tabs to provide users with further avenues to go deeper into the data.
Easy to navigate
Web dashboards convey complex information about your business. It's important that users are able to navigate all this information and data to get real, actionable insights. Web dashboards like Klipfolio Dashboard provide users with navigational tools similar to any other website such as hyperlinks, browsing tabs, and tooltips.
Web users are accustomed to clicking on links to get more information. In Klipfolio Dashboard, hyperlinks can be used to send users to an external site, spawn a new tab with the data they've requested, or to perform a drill down.
Dashboard navigation isn't just about going from point A to point B, it's about providing a consistent set of visuals to make it easy for users to digest information on each dashboard tab they view. This can be done by presenting similar data using similar visuals. For instance, if you are showing progress towards a goal, such as new Facebook followers this month, you should show all similar metrics the same way, like Twitter or LinkedIn followers.
Give users a reason to return
A successful web-based dashboard, much like a successful website, compels users to sign in on a daily or hourly basis to view the latest information. The purpose of business dashboards is to increase the visibility of key metrics and business-critical data. Dashboard audiences have a vested interest in the metrics you show, and you can use that for your advantage.
Web users are conditioned to expect something new whenever they visit a website, whether it's to see the latest status updates on Facebook, reply to an email in Gmail, or to view the latest news on CNN. Web dashboards are ideal for displaying real-time data especially if that data is subject to change at a high frequency.
Design and ROI
A dashboard is an important investment for any business. Ideally, a business dashboard provides some sort of return on investment (ROI). It's important to recognize that dashboard ROI is often more qualitative than quantitative. In other words, a dashboard may help you make better, more informed decisions, but it's hard to come up with a concrete value for money saved, or profits increased.
That doesn't mean dashboard ROI cannot be measured, rather that expectations of ROI should be properly managed. I would put forward that the best indicator of a high ROI for a web dashboard is how often users sign in to their dashboard. If the frequency of sign on is high, then you know the dashboard provides value to your audience.
I believe the most important factor in creating a great dashboard is understanding your audience. Even if you adhere to web design and data visualization best practices, the most important tool at your disposal is user feedback (read: your ears). They will tell you what they want and what works. Your job as a dashboard designer is to listen and put this into action; our role as a dashboard vendor is to give you the tools and platform to do this.
Originally published May 6, 2013, updated Jun, 18 2019