Dashboard Best Practices: How to Build a Meaningful Dashboard

Author's avatar Management UPDATED Mar 23, 2023 PUBLISHED Jan 20, 2021 14 minutes read

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    Peter Caputa

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    Whether you’re using a dashboard to better forecast your business, show trends in traffic, or make smarter decisions, accurately displaying data can do a lot for your organization.

    Because business dashboards can be so impactful, and store such a variety of information, it’s crucial that when you set forth to build a dashboard, you do it the right way.

    That is easier said than done, as a meaningful dashboard is more than just a few bar graphs in an updated spreadsheet. We asked numerous experts to weigh in on making a KPI dashboard and what separates a meaningful display of data from one that is meaningless. Let’s get started.

    Interested in something specific when it comes to dashboard best practices? Jump ahead to:


    How Do You Make a Good Dashboard?

    When you’re ready to start creating a dashboard for your organization, it can be confusing to know where exactly to begin.

    Peter Song, from Haki Review Mashup, recommends starting the old-fashioned way. Song shared, “Start with a pen and paper for a draft before creating an actual dashboard. Although your dashboard is in a digital form, drawing a draft on paper can help you to design without waste. As you use your hand to draft, you will have time to think if some metrics are really needed and which graph describes your data the best. Your hand is still the best tool for that kind of task, and it will save your time from continuously changing a dashboard that’s already shared with people.”

    Similarly, Pir Fahad Momin at Slyecom also speaks to the importance of thinking through your visual representations. Momim states, “The basic purpose of business dashboards is to simplify information through visual representation. There are a few questions that you should be asking yourself before actually building your dashboard

    1. Who is the audience? 
    2. What information do they need? 
    3. What do they already know about the metrics? 
    4. What are their experiences with data? 
    5. What are their prejudices in terms of visualizations and colors?

    When you have all your answers then you can go for the following dashboard designs depending on the nature of the presentation.”

    Also in agreement about creating a good performance dashboard for your audience is Bryce Bowman at People First Planning. Bowman shared, “ Focus on the decisions you are hoping to drive with each reporting view. Data dashboards are frequently developed by those who are intimately familiar with the technical concepts, and they tend to include lots of details that are often irrelevant to decision-makers.

    The best-designed dashboards include just enough information to inform and drive action on the topic being presented, while not overwhelming the user with less relevant facts and figures.”

    As you begin designing, Anna McVeigh-Murphy at Curacubby stresses the importance of storytelling. “Your dashboard needs to tell a story. Numbers mean little without context. When I design dashboards, I try to envision a beginning, middle, and end. I put myself into the shoes of the viewer. I create hooks, set the scene, and focus on resolutions.

    It’s the same way we create good marketing: it all comes down to the story.

    That way, the person analyzing the data in your business dashboard software understands it in context with a narrative to follow, not just numbers in isolation”, shares McVeigh-Murphy.

    As brainstorm ideas for your dashboard, remember that it’s okay to keep it simple. Moshiur Rahman shares, “It’s essential to keep things simple both in life and while designing dashboards using an executive dashboard software for different stakeholders. Not everyone has a statistics major or background in data analysis. However, everyone involved in a company still needs to be informed and require information to make effective business decisions.

    My advice is to exclusively focus on sharing critical information in the simplest way possible. Users should spend time connecting the dots and not trying to figure out how to maneuver a dashboard. If users are frustrated, then that’s not a good user experience. It’s essential to keep the end-users’ goals in mind and provide the best user experience possible.”

    What Should Be Shown on a Dashboard?

    Now that you know how to get started when creating a dashboard, you also have to consider what sort of data and elements should be included.

    In this section, we’ll discuss key takeaways and also show some dashboard examples:

    1. Put the most important data first
    2. Keep business goals in mind
    3. Design elements that make sense
    4. Data visualization elements

    1. Put the most important data at the top

    Jonathan Aufray from Growth Hackers recommends getting the most crucial data in front of your audience as soon as you can. Aufray shares, “Put the most important metrics first.             

    In a report, you want to include performance metrics, graphs showing growth, audience insights, top-performing campaigns, and optimization suggestions. Not everyone may have the time to read your reports thoroughly so you want to make it clear. By including the most important metrics on top of your reports, anyone opening the report will understand the performance without going into detail.”

    Agreeing is Matt Erickson at National Positions. Erickson adds, “Include a high-level results summary on page one with contextual annotations that tell the overall story for the rest of your reporting. What was invested? What was conversion revenue? What was the highest value audience, audience source, geography, etc? All the other data is great, but from the get-go, paint a performance picture that the rest of your reporting can (and will) elaborate upon.”

    2. Keep business goals in mind

    What is your small business trying to accomplish, or show, with the small business dashboard you’re looking to create? The goals need to be top-of-mind when thinking about what to show. For this tip, 

    Alejandro Rioja at So Influential shared, “I think a successful dashboard design takes into account a well-defined set of goals, actionable insights, and take away for users. By displaying appropriate data you basically encourage a precise and efficient execution and measurable objectives.”

    Agreeing is Boris Palacios at Gray Group Intl. Palacios says, “Don’t get too excited, keep the end goal in mind. It’s easy to get excited with metrics that are fun to review, but it’s important to ask yourself, ‘Do they make sense for my business or the main goal of the dashboard that I am designing?’ You want to gather information and metrics from your small business dashboard software to add value to your company. To give you relevant data that can guide your decision making. 

    3. Design elements that make sense

    From the color scheme to the theme, the design of your dashboard is crucial. It’s got to be easy to read without having the readers strain their eyes, with colors that make sense for the data.

    Corroborating this is Phil Ash at Pro Paint Corner. Ash states “For me, it is very important to choose colors and a theme that resonates with your focus and productivity. You will be logging into your dashboard on a daily basis. If you choose colors that don’t harmonize with you then it will disrupt the data and make the analysis very uncomfortable.

    Best options are dark mode to avoid the glaring white screen of other pages or a light blue theme to calm and motivate you.”

    In agreement is Sam Underwood at Futurety, who shares, “ When designing an agency dashboard, prioritization is key. We always encourage our team and clients to consider the ‘interesting’ vs. ‘useful’ metrics: If a particular chart or table is just interesting but doesn’t inspire action, consider removing it. Even visuals can turn into white noise when they’re not impactful.

    Finally, Mehul Rajput at MindInventory adds, “A dashboard can be a thing of beauty and a good executive dashboard can speed up the decision-making. To get the most out of the dashboard you must make its layout clear. Your dashboard should be coordinated in a pecking order so it’s easy to scan. The best practice is to show the main information at the upper left of the screen, because this is the place where the user’s attention is drawn to first.

    It tends to be useful to make this key data the biggest and boldest as well, so users will intuitively know it’s more significant.”

    4. Data visualization elements

    It goes without saying that your dashboard needs to have data visualization elements to showcase the story your data is telling. From line and bar graphs, pie charts, and even heatmaps, there are many options to consider.

    visualization in dashboards

    Agreeing is Crystal Diaz at Lights On Creative, who adds, “Charts are a must! I use Google Data Studio a lot to digest the information from Google Analytics into charts, flows, and pictures for better understanding.

    Interested in learning more about Google Analytics and how to use its data in your dashboard? Check out the Google Analytics dashboard template of website traffic to get started. You can browse more web analytics dashboards or marketing templates here.

    google analytics dashboard

    What Makes a Dashboard Good or Bad?

    When it comes to rolling up your sleeves and getting into the nitty-gritty of your dashboard, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it all. 

    In order to make sure you create a good dashboard, remember to:

    1. Keep it concise
    2. Make your data easy to understand
    3. Optimize for various screens
    4. Be user friendly

    1. Keep it concise

    Separating the good from the bad in the world of dashboards is how much data you pack into your dashboard. It’s always the smarter option to be concise so you don’t overwhelm the users.

    Agreeing is Andre Oentoro at Milkwhale, stating, “ Only include what’s important. A dashboard can look intimidating when it’s too cluttered. Keep it simple and clean by only including important metrics.

    Adding to that is Tanya Wigmore at CRO:NYX Digital. Wigmore shares, “Follow the 5-second rule; you should be able to look at your dashboard and understand all the metrics presented in under five seconds. If you can’t, your dashboard has too many reports on it, or the reports you’ve added are too complex.”

    Contributing more advice to the matter is Dan Lacey, who shares, “Keeping it simple and easy to use is the most important aspect of any dashboard for me. If it’s nicely designed and easy to use then I am more likely to use it every day. If it’s ugly and causes friction from being difficult to use, it doesn’t matter if it has more features, I am less likely to use it.”

    Finally, another fan of the “less is more” approach is Jessica Taylor of Lead Nerds, who adds, “When you have too many arbitrary numbers that aren’t used for making decisions you lose sight of the things that matter. Always make sure your metrics are labeled in a way that everyone that needs to access the dashboard can understand by using definitions and tooltips.”

    2. Make your data easy to understand

    Going hand in hand with keeping your dashboards concise is making sure the data you track in your client dashboard software and you decide to showcase is easy to understand and navigate.

    Tim Koster at CleverCreations shares, “In our experience, the most important design practice for performance dashboards is to keep things simple. This means not overcomplicating things with complicated color schemes, but sticking to a limited number of intuitive colors (green = good, red = bad, grey = neutral, etc.).

    Similarly, it is practical to truncate large numbers. Users rarely have a use for overly detailed values. For example, a value such as $1,695,321,27 is better truncated to $1.7M.”

    3. Optimize for various screens

    From tablets to smartphones to laptops, people will likely be accessing your dashboard on a variety of screens. If you want your dashboard to make sense, it will need to be responsive on all sizes.  

    For this, Andrew Ruditser at Maxburst, Inc. states, “One important dashboard design best practice is making sure it is optimized for multiple screen sizes.

    With the use of mobile devices and tablets evolving and becoming our main source of communication, it is very important your dashboard functions correctly on these to ensure users can view your data on the fly.

    Since mobile screens are much smaller in size, it is important that you understand the placement of data will differ than that of a desktop screen.

    So, make sure to include the most critical visuals and cut those that are not relevant. This will make it visually easier for those searching on a mobile device.”

    You will say, most of the reports are hard to read on tablets or mobile phones, but not with reporting software that supports all kinds of devices, even smartwatches.

    4. Be user friendly

    Last but not least, if you want to create a good dashboard, keep the user top of mind and make it user friendly. 

    Alexander De Ridder at INK shares, “User-friendliness is key. Users viewing the report should be able to read and understand the basics of the report quickly and with ease. Numbers and charts should be clear and color-coded for comparison purposes or to show the decline and increase of a specific subject being reported.”

    Aaron Haynes at Loganix agrees by saying, “Keep it simple and clear. There’s no reason to overcomplicate the features or add confusing colors just to meet the brand image. The dashboard should be all about clarity and user-friendliness.”

    Rounding out tips for a good dashboard, and what separates the good from the bad, is Sean Chaudhary at AlchemyLeads. Chaudhry states, “While colors might be the last thing you pay attention to when creating your marketing dashboard, colors play a significant role in creating a long-lasting impression. Having an attractive and perfectly well-defined color palette for your dashboard not only enriches your customers’ experiences but can also help make key metrics within your dashboard stand out from any possible noise in the data.

    In our opinion, the overall design and user-friendliness of the dashboard you create is just as important as the diversity of data included in the dashboard.”


    Time to Crunch Some Numbers

    There’s no denying that there’s a lot to keep in mind when creating an effective dashboard. After you crunch the numbers and know exactly which data you want to highlight, ask yourself, “does the data speak for itself, or am I forcing it?”

    When you apply these tips, chances are the data will do the talking. Ready to crunch those numbers? Sign up for our dashboard reporting software today.

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    Article by
    Mara Calvello

    Mara is a freelance writer at Databox and a Content Marketing Manager at G2. In her spare time, she's either at the gym, reading a book from her overcrowded bookshelf, enjoying the great outdoors with her rescue dog Zeke, or right in the middle of a Netflix binge. Obsessions include the Chicago Cubs, Harry Potter, and all of the Italian food imaginable.

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