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How to Build a Dashboard the Doesn't Suck

The dashboard is usually the heart of any system. It is where we take our users immediately after login, and where they spend most of their time. It is where CEOs get updated on the status of their company, sales managers streamline their sales numbers, and developers manage system errors.

It's where we place all the most important information our customers need to complete their task, follow their status, or manage their time.

Weird that it so often sucks.

The truth is, dashboards are usually designed by developers, using an online template to make it look pretty. Even worse, often they let the graphic designers get their hands on dashboard design (these days, graphic designers attach UX to their title automatically). This sort of behavior is simply asking for beautiful, 3D graphs and tables that can't be looked at for more than a moment at a time.

Here is what you need to think about to prevent your dashboard from being unusable:

1. Who is the dashboard for?

The first and simplest question there is. Is this dashboard designed for the CEO, the sales rep, or the technician? We are trying to figure out what type of dashboard we are creating. A CEO, for example, would require an overview management dashboard, showing high level figures (such as the company stock price, a sales overview, and all sorts of long term trends).

A technician, on the other hand, would require an operations dashboard, offering real time data of the functions of whatever he might be working on.

In an online course, the teacher would use a social dashboard, showing how many students have registered, how much income they generate, and which course is doing better than the others.

Each type of dashboard looks and acts differently. Operations dashboards refresh every second, while management dashboards take their time. Some dashboards let you drill down to the smallest details, others keep it at an overview. Know the customer, and you will know which dashboard to give them.

2. Too many elements on the page.

Science tells us the brain can only handle between 2 and 9 elements at a time. I'll narrow that field to between 3 and 7. Too many elements will overload the viewers brain, causing mental fatigue that will not only make them more tired and less imaginative, but cause them to click away from the dashboard.

If you can't get it all in within a couple of seconds, it isn't a dashboard, but a phone book.

3. Don't make it too flashy.

A common problem in dashboard design is when graphic designers are given free range to create beautiful charts and graphs. They do a great job at it, of course, but the dashboard become essentially unusable.

The point of a dashboard is to convey the most important information, quickly and efficiently. Anything that distracts from that should be taken away.

The same goes for color. Bright colors are great for pulling focus to important elements on the page. Fill the dashboard with too much color, and your customer's eyes will not know where to go. Eventually finding their way to the X at the top right of their browser.

Too many elements and too much color makes this dashboard hard to look at for more than a second at a time.

4. group elements by subject and logic.

A good way to get over clutter, is by grouping elements together. Placing two or three elements that fit logically together makes them work as one, reducing clutter on the page, as well as in the watcher's mind.

Here are three elements that all refer to sales (don't look for too much logic, I made these up). Each of these elements requires the viewer to concentrate on what it means and how it fits into the big picture that is sales. Another option might be:

In this case, all of the previous three element have been placed together. Their placement together gives them contexts, so there is no confusion as to what each element is referring to. at this point, as far as the brain is concerned, this is one element. Not three.

There are many more ways to make dashboards less confusing, but these were the main four. If you know who you're designing for, and don't get too flashy or cluttery, the rest is icing on the cake.

Dashboards are complex. Unlike other pages, the dashboard has a relationship with its viewer. Relationships are messy, and often feel overbearing. So make it simple and to the point. If it takes more than 3 seconds to get to the point, you might be doing it wrong.

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