6 rules when making data dashboards

Use these rules to help you make decisions when designing and making dashboards

I've made a few data dashboards recently, and I've realised it can be hard to know where to begin sometimes. Hopefully these rules can help focus your thoughts.

1. Know the use cases

Just like designing anything, if you don't know how it's going to be used, it's not likely you're going to do a good job.

Often there aren't actually that many use cases. But if there are - you can construct different dashboards/sections in the dashboard optimised for them.

2. Prefer "explain" to "explore"

An "explore" chart doesn't have a clear conclusion or story associated with the data - it lets the user come up with them. But often exploring the data is not want users need to do!

Instead, users often need some very specific question(s) answering, which are what "explain" charts do.

3. Use titles that make clear how each component can be used

Titles can be useful to the users, especially new users, so they know what they can use the dashboard or each visual for.

But also, if you can't come up with good titles, then you probably don't know the use cases well enough, or you don't know what you're trying to achieve, or you're maybe trying to make each visual satisfy too many use cases.

A word of caution - visuals shouldn't be so complex that they strongly depend on the title. They should be reasonably clear at a glance.

4. Keep interactivity to a minimum

Including interactivity often feels like a safe bet, because it allows more data to be discovered "just in case". But that "just in case" probably means you don't know what's important to show.

It also leaves the uses that need the interaction second class citizens, and has the consequence of making it harder to tailor visuals to any of the uses.

Instead, find out the use cases, and then if you need to create separate visuals each tailed to one (or few) use cases.

5. Make sure the users will trust the dashboard

If the users don't trust the dashboard, then they won't take action based on it. At best it's pointless, but at worst you've wasted yours and other people's time.

How to acheive this is probably specific to the situation. Some ideas include making sure it has consistent layout/spacing/colours; making sure there aren't unnecessary or broken components; making sure the data is self consistent, and consistent with external data the user has access to; making it very clear if there are limitations or innacuracies; making it clear when the data was last updated; or making sure that it actually answers the questions it claims to. Sometimes visuals that are technically unnecessary to answer the questions, but lend weight to the veracity of the data, help acheive this.

6. Put in the work

Especially if you're new to making dashboards, it can take many iterations of both the UI and the data to end up with something good. If you're focusing in on use cases while you're making it, doubly so. Be prepared for this!