As we are having extensive dashboard design brainstorm meetings going on these days, it is especially beneficial to read this insightful and well-written book written by Stephen Few. I would like to share some take-aways from first 3 chapters that I’ve read.
The first 3 chapters offer more general information regarding information dashboard design with extensive examples, while the rest 5 chapters provide further instructions on solving several important design issues.
The first thing discussed is the clarification of the idea of information dashboard. After examining some existing info dashboard products, he came up with a definition of information dashboard (p. 34):
A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.
Notice how this definition can be decomposed to 4 meaningful elements, each could enlighten us on many design considerations. From the definition, I can see at least the demands on understanding visual perception, and users’ needs.
Bottom line here is: dashboard is NOT a technology but rather a piece of design that aims to communicate, and “the limited real estate of a single screen requires concise communication” (p. 44).
Secondly, Stephen introduced different categorization systems of dashboard. The one most relevant to visual design is the categorization based on the role of the dashboard: strategic role, analytical role, or operational role.
- Strategic role (e.g., CEO needs the overview of the operation status of the company): high-level measures / no real-time data / no interactions to support further analysis
- Analytical role (e.g., our DIA2 product): demands greater context / interactions with data / link seamlessly to other means to analyze data
- Operational role (e.g., monitor machine operation and take action when necessary): dynamic nature, real-time data / grab attention when need immediate operation
Our project clear fits best to “analytical role”, which requires a good mechanism to provide more contexts to the data, and enable comparisons, extensive historical views, & interactions with data to drill down.
Last, in Chapter 3, Stephen gave a list of 13 common mistakes in dashboard design:
- Exceeding the boundaries of a single screen
NO separate screen or scrolling, which ruins the benefits of monitoring information “at a glance”.
- Supplying inadequate context for the data
Just as what we discussed in the brainstorm meetings, the budget amount should be offered with other information, otherwise the number won’t mean anything for the users.
The difficulty here is to show meaningful contexts without introducing distraction.
- Displaying excessive detail or precision
E.g., displays $98,978,407.78, while it should be $98,978,408 or $99M.
- Choosing a deficient measure
What to show with what unit? E.g., let users compare the amount or show the percentage change instead?
- Choosing inappropriate display media
What type of chart or graph to use?
E.g., Stephen is strongly against pie chart: hard to compare 2-dimensional area or angle.
- Introducing meaningless variety
Always use the display that works best. Users won’t get bored because of this.
- Using poorly designed display media
E.g., unrecognizable color differences, 3-D bar chart, and distractingly bright color.
- Encoding quantitative data inaccurately
This introduces mis-interoperation of data.
- Arranging the data poorly
With a large amount of data to show in a limited space, it is important to place information based on importance and desired viewing sequence. This is why we discussed about what information our persona Matt wants to see first.
Also, design and place information in a way of encouraging comparison.
- Highlighting important data inefficiently or not at all
Don’t make everything visually prominent, or users won’t know where to look at first.
- Cluttering the display with useless decorations
E.g., background images, and other distracting ornamentations.
- Misusing or overusing color
Color should not be used haphazardly.
Also, don’t reply purely on color to convey information: this excludes color blinded users (10% of males and 1% of females).
- Unattractive visual display
Simple but hard to achieve: don’t make it ugly.