From business-to-business applications to more consumer focused ones, the online ‘dashboard’ is as popular as ever. The term dashboard was originally the name of a board that was placed in front of a carriage to stop mud from being splashed all over by the horse's hooves. More recently, the term dashboard has described various controls, widgets and gauges mounted below the windscreen of a car. Now, in the digital era, it refers to the bringing together of data, information and controls into a single online space. If not done correctly, without careful consideration of user needs, a dashboard can end up more akin to the mud splattering definition than the modern day equivalent.
Dashboard design can be tricky, with requirements often at odds with many user experience best practices. Large volumes of data mean they become busy, information can be cramped and hierarchy difficult to establish. Various data sources hastily pulled together with little concern for the problem they are solving or the needs of the user. Not following a user centred approach when designing a dashboard is an easy trap to fall into, especially as there are so many out of the box templates promising to solve all your needs without having to think about it. But ultimately, without careful, bespoke consideration of the user’s journey and their needs your dashboard will not succeed.
If the dashboard is full of data we have to ensure the design of that data as a fundamental part of our project flow. Data visualisation comes first, we must fully understand what we are displaying and then optimise how we display it. As users of a dashboard, it is less about workflow and more about how we comprehend the data we are being presented.
To dashboard or not to dashboard?
This is a great first question to ask yourselves. We’ve had lots of discussion with clients and internally about whether a dashboard is the most appropriate UI to adopt in certain situations. When we’re deciding if a dashboard is the best solution to a particular data need there are three things we consider first.
Firstly, is a dashboard a genuine customer need, if so, does all this data need to live in the same place? Will users need to compare different pieces of data on the dashboard or should they be viewable in discrete locations. Alternatively, is an overview of lots of different data sources valuable?
Secondly how frequently is the data updated? Dashboards that show data that doesn't change that often, or worse is out of date, will discourage users from coming back to check what's going on in the system.
Thirdly does the user need to come to the data, or does the data need to come to the user? If the data is of a time sensitive nature then a notifications system may serve you better than a dashboard. If your user base isn't frequently logging on to your system then email updates might be a better way to update them on changes to the data.
Dashboards are often what customers ask for.
They are rarely what customers need.
If you’re building a dashboard, it’s likely your user research wasn’t finished.
— Jared Spool (@jmspool) August 11, 2020
Measuring and learning is key to the success of any digital experience. With the right tracking in place on a traditional website you might find it easy to measure performance, whether people fulfil their goal and how they are moving from page to page. With dashboards this becomes more difficult as users can do several things at once. So ensure you put in place the mechanics needed to measure implicit and explicit actions. In this article, the team at Spotify explain the importance of mixed methods and diverse teams when carrying out their research and establishing hypotheses.
We have found a combination of one-on-one user research and comprehensive event tracking is a great way to start learning. Adding unique events to every user interface element, ensures we know what is being used, when and how. We also recommend the monitoring of combined events, so that multiple events carried out in a particular order can trigger alerts to product teams. However when a user’s goal is simply to keep track of some information on your dashboard it can often be hard to track with events analytics. This is where one on one user research can really shine. Learning more about how users use the information provided in context will really help understand if your dashboard design has been successful.
Dashboards can be seen as dull and repetitive, which is why we believe the tiny design details really matter. Consider every UI element as a possible candidate for a micro-interaction. That's not to say the entire screen becomes awash with flashy overlays and animations, careful consideration is key here. Along with other benefits such as improving navigation and making an interface more rewarding, there are also specific advantages when applying them to dashboard design. Micro-interactions are great at directing the users' focus and next actions, they guide from one element to another or gently nudge them in the right direction. In the dashboard setting where space is at a premium, a micro-interaction in the right context is a great way to add emphasis to successful explicit user actions or highlight system events such as new data appearing. Because of the dynamic nature of a dashboard, users may not expect to refresh or move away from a particular screen to see the results of their actions, so feedback states of all types are extremely important.
When you’re working on designing a dashboard you’ll often face the similar organisational challenges to working on homepages. Every part of the business is going to want to have their information front and centre. And just like homepage design there’s a real danger of information overload. With a traditional homepage we wouldn’t choose to add everything to the screen at once, but rather introduce the user to the proposition and unique selling points at a sensible pace.
With dashboards it’s often even more tempting to include everything in because it happens to be available, rather than only adding things based on proven needs. First, figure out what’s important to your users, be mindful of their cognitive load and learn about their behaviour modes - are they the type of users who are comfortable consuming large volumes of information at once? Our memory can only hold a certain amount of information at one time, so before implementing something that could make people feel uncomfortable and frustrated from the outset, consider whether the information could be better delivered in alternative ways.
For a dashboard design to have excellent usability it has to have great readability. Users have to be able to get the information they need at a glance. Your users will also want to get all the information they need quickly. Task speed is always a key driver for user experience and users don't want to have to scroll, click-through, or hunt for the data they need to get their jobs done.
These needs can often be at odds when looking at the UI design for a dashboard. When we want to make data easy to read we'll often use a big font-size, charts, and a lot of white space. But this is going to reduce data density [How white space killed an enterprise app]. When we want to display a lot of data simultaneously it's common to reduce the font size and place the data in tables. So how do you deliver a design that's jam-packed with data and is easy to read?
If data density becomes a problem in your design the first step should always be to evaluate what data is essential. Then separating data into easily accessible groups can help you narrow the amount of information you need display at any one time. In addition, colour, contrast, and animation can be used in place of large type and white-space to visually separate data whilst maintaining high data density.
This list of tips is a great starting point for designing an easy to use and efficient dashboard, but there are of course lots of other aspects to consider. More recently, we have been experimenting with contextual disclosure mechanisms to ensure information that is only important in a specific context is revealed exactly when needed, meaning the interface is not cluttered with irrelevant information, but instead reacts in-the-moment to the user's actions.
Solving the user’s needs whilst at the same time working tirelessly on the details is key to effective dashboard design. If you have any questions on how to make your product or service really sing, feel free to drop us a line!
This little insight was brought to you by Mark & Steve.
Furthermore are a multi-platform digital product and service design studio based in London. We have one mission: to create innovative digital products that stand out in the landscape, are beautiful, purposeful and a delight for the user. Hot on user experience and user research, we believe good ideas can come at any point in a project, so we utilise agile methodologies. Hypotheses are always tested using prototypes and real users, with improvements being constantly fed back into our user experience and visual designs.
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