on March 22, 2022 (last modified on March 15, 2022) • 15 minute read
Data dashboards are an effective way to monitor and judge business performance in real-time. But the wrong dashboard design can easily negate that benefit. When done wrong, your dashboard design can overload users with unnecessary information, make it hard to find important insights, and discourage regular use.
The key to designing effective dashboards is to understand the role they play in your business — what they should achieve and how different users operate them. Once you understand this, you can start building dashboards that have a real purpose instead of just becoming data dumps with no real value-add.
So if you’re pouring your heart and time into creating dashboards no one appreciates, read on to learn:
Let’s get started.
Dashboard design is important not only because it’s the first thing people see when they log in to their account, but because it affects how quickly users receive and process information.
The dashboard is the core of any data-driven application. It is where users see the most important information at a glance, understand relationships between the data points, and decide based on insights they gain. The dashboard’s design allows you to present complex data in a way that’s easy to understand. You can give your users all the data in the world, but without proper visualization, they won’t be able to make sense of it.
Finally, when your design doesn’t follow dashboard best practices it can make your dashboard hard to navigate, and leave a negative impression too.
That notwithstanding, many businesses still don’t invest in good dashboard design.In our survey of 40 respondents, we found that only half are using and designing dashboards, while just shy of half of them are using them, but not designing them. 2.5% have no experience with dashboards at all.
45% of these respondents are B2C Services or Products, 30% B2B Services or Products, and 25% Agencies: Marketing, Digital or Media.
Together, they voted marketing dashboards as most useful (20% of respondents agree), followed by project management dashboards (17.5%) and – all of them (15%).
Our respondents voted “too many different types of information on one visualization” as the most common dashboard mistake, according to their experience.
Here are all 10 dashboard design mistakes our respondents shared:
Ever heard of information overload? That’s what happens when you indiscriminately include as much information as you can in a single visualization.
Rafal Mlodzki of Passport Photo Online shares that “Probably the worst dashboard mistake I’ve ever made was including dozens of information on one board. It became so complicated that after a while I lost control over it and didn’t understand the data at all. Now I know that it was a result of my ambition to make everything alone, without the help of experienced specialists. That was a very immature approach to the business.”
Related: Dashboard vs Report: Similarities and Differences
Also ranking high on the list, a lack of context in your dashboard design confuses and inconveniences your users. Without context, they’ll need to dig further to understand the story the presented data tells.
Dan Ni of Messaged.com shared that “The worst mistake that we made on our dashboard was not giving everything context. The lack of context caused a lot of confusion and inconvenience. Because basically a dashboard should provide you with an accurate story, as that paints a whole picture.”
Similarly, Cindy Corpis of SearchPeopleFree votes lack of context as a top dashboard design mistake. “The common dashboard design mistake I encountered was a lack of context. As a dashboard is mainly a data summary, every section must speak for itself and showcase a precise story. I overlooked that!”.
As a frequent user of multiple dashboards, William Donnelly of Lottie shares that lack of context was is a frequent mistake “in recent times”. “Since a dashboard is like a summary of data, each section should be designed to represent a singular aspect with the proper information.
Let’s take an example, a sales dashboard for quarterly sales includes historical data as it is more beneficial for mapping overall growth for the company. You have to remember that what goes on the dashboard is just as important as the technique you choose to display it for the audience. When I outsourced my dashboard implementation, it had the same issue with lack of context reigning supreme. The employees found it difficult to not only understand the company vision but also felt alienated from the data on display.”
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Colors bring life to a dashboard, true. But like with every good thing, there should be a limit.
Like many other respondents, Lisa Richards of The Candida Diet, votes incorporating too many colors in a dashboard “one of the worst and most annoying design mistakes I’ve encountered. Using more than 2 distinct hues on a dashboard is distracting and hinders effective data visualization. The dashboard ends up looking too busy and a complete eyesore. I prefer when neutral colors are used in the design of the dashboard, with their main purpose being to distinguish between the different areas.”
Similar to too many colors, an overly busy design can distract and overwhelm your users instead of engaging them.
Take Leanna Serras, FragranceX whose sales dashboard had “over twenty widgets positioned haphazardly which created too much visual clutter. The consequence was it was impossible to answer basic questions such as, “What is the total amount of our sales” at a glance. We decided to implement a five-second rule, namely that our dashboard had to be able to answer commonly asked business questions within five seconds. We also cut down the number of widgets down to seven, which is the number of images the human brain can process at a time. By implementing these changes we made our dashboard much more accessible and useful to our stakeholders.”
Aaron Masterson of Local Furniture Outlet shares a similar experience.
“The worst dashboard design mistake we made at Local Furniture Outlet was focusing more on design rather than function. Since we needed to make informed business decisions using data, we thought it would be a great idea to use software that features all the bells and whistles.
While we were initially impressed by the attractive 3D animations and objects, it resulted in a visual mess that hindered us from gaining effective insights from our data. There was more confusion than direction, leading to a drawn-out, and frustrating process of getting valuable insights that will move our business forward. Simple and clean graphics were more effective and easily understood.. Flexible and easy to navigate features of a simpler software helped us make actionable decisions faster.” says Masterson.
Zach Letter of Wonder Works Studios found that “Splashy visuals can highlight a point and enhance a dashboard, but the most common and worst mistakes I have encountered is when designers overuse them to where they become a distraction.
Visuals should never supplant your data, nor should they be a replacement for it, and poorly constructed dashboards are the result of the designer forgetting their intent. I have encountered dashboards with so many colors and graphics that I could not tell where each link was going and spent twenty minutes going through each page to finally get to where I wanted to go.
It is critical when designing your dashboard, you are certain that you take everything into account such as if it communicates all pertinent information, eliminates confusion, creates seamless internal links, and does not hinder download speeds.
Having a visually attractive dashboard is important, but never forget that first and foremost, they are tools used to properly connect your visitors with the rest of your website, and no visuals are worth impeding that goal.”
Related: 21 Practical Tips for Building Better Business Dashboards
According to our respondents, dashboard design should focus on the metrics that matter most to your business. That way, only the most relevant data is presented to users.
Roy Morejon of Enventys Partners says “One of the worst dashboard design mistakes you can make is dumping every ounce of data you have into it, effectively changing it from a dashboard to a report. The strongest dashboards have focus, organization, and clarity, all of which are far more attainable when only the most relevant data is included. Simplicity is the goal, with a focus on the critical metrics that most impact success. Data dumping leads to overwhelm, and muddies the dashboard’s entire purpose: to define what’s happening, and to make clear decisions about the action needed to make things stronger.”
Austin Fain of Perfect Steel Solutions shared a similar experience. Fain said that “One flawed dashboard design I once encountered at my previous company was careless arrangement. The entire dashboard was littered with graphs and flowcharts here and there, with no real direction. The company logo was placed near the bottom and was quite small.
As a result, I didn’t even know where to start analyzing the data, which rendered the entire dashboard completely ineffective. Whenever we come across visual dashboards, our typical reading pattern dictates that we start with the top left corner. Whatever goes here – whether it is a caption, a company logo or a significant statistic – sets the tone for the remaining dashboard.”
Bad data-to-visualization pairing happens when you use a type of visual to represent data that would fit better in another visualization type. For example, using a line chart where a column or bar chart is a better fit.
Tomek Młodzki of PhotoAiD shed light on this. Młodzki said “Wrong chart types. The object of the dashboard is the intuitive and accurate visualization of data. To do so, it is relevant choosing the right chart type. When I started, I wrongly ignored that the same chart can not fit well with all sets of data and information types. Choosing a chart type for how it looks, not considering how harder it would be for others to interpret, has been a mistake. Instead of saving time with data visualization, we have wasted it on interpreting our data and fixing the problem.”
Related: What’s the Best Chart Type for Your Dashboard Metrics?
When you don’t label your data correctly, you risk leaving interpretations up to your user’s imagination and may confuse them. That’s why Dean Kalpan of Kaplan Collection Agency votes this a top dashboard design mistake to avoid.
“We had a CRM dashboard which used graphs which were poorly labeled. The graphs did not have titles, the axes were not labeled and the legends were confusing. As a consequence, it was not easy to see what the visualizations were trying to convey. Our solution was to label the axes properly and use appropriate ranges for the ticks on the axes to ensure the axes labels did not become too crowded. We gave the graphs proper titles and labeled the lines directly instead of using legends. These simple changes allowed our dashboard to deliver its message much more clearly.” Kaplan says.
Considering that most users are now mobile-first, it’s a huge mistake to not factor in mobile-friendliness when designing your dashboard today.
Lindsey Winsemius of CryptoComics shares extensively on the consequences of this mistake.
“I’ve seen a lot of dashboards in my 14+ years of digital marketing/software development. It’s difficult to pick just one design mistake. But most recently, I would consider the worst design mistake would be a dashboard that isn’t mobile-friendly. CryptoComics.com is currently undergoing a design update to its Dashboard. The current Dashboard is a vast improvement to the first iteration, which was very difficult to use on a mobile device. As a new B2C business in the blockchain and NFT space, having a mobile dashboard for users is essential. More and more people expect to be able to do everything, from shopping to reading to managing their finances, all from their mobile devices.
As a result of this failure, many users on mobile devices gave up in frustration and most active members initially were only those accessing the site from non-mobile devices. It is so important for a dashboard to be accessible from any device, although including necessary information in a variety of formats can provide a unique challenge to designers. I am pleased to say the CryptoComics creative director was up to the challenge, and the current Dashboard is mobile-friendly. The update being designed now is even more impressive!”
The importance of a user-focused dashboard design can’t be overstated.
Will your users access your dashboard from a desktop or a mobile phone? Will they love features like dark mode to reduce eye strain? These kinds of questions helps you build a dashboard design that users will love.
Pavel Tahil of EPAM, says “At the very beginning of my career, the biggest mistake was the wrong type of dashboards I chose. Especially when you’re trying to show dependencies between many complex variables. For instance, I worked on a screen where users had to use six dashboards simultaneously. All of them had filters and showed results dependent on each other. I did a quick workshop with the client to understand what we were going to display. After that, I designed the dashboards. But we missed an important group of people who used not a desktop but tablets and mobile phones. As a result, the chosen dashboards didn’t work for narrow screens and users couldn’t get the data they needed. The best way to avoid that mistake is to have a deep discovery phase with businesses and users. Then, focus not just on existing users but look to a year ahead to cover all aspects.”
Speaking of user-preferred aesthetics like dark mode, Gosia Hytry of Spacelift shares that “The worst dashboard design mistake is not making in dark mode. Recently, I picked the products with inbuilt dark mode — despite having better options. In the last few years, screen time has increased enormously due to remote work. If your product is not doing the bare minimum to protect your user’s eyes with glaring white light, I am avoiding it. Some products does not even support the dark mode enabled by various Chrome extensions, and they might be the worst.”
“One of the biggest mistakes I see in dashboard design is too much white space and padding around page cells, tables, and page elements,” says John Li of Fig Loans.
Li says those misused design elements “weakens UX and forces the user to scroll too far to reach the relevant data they need. The inconvenience of time wasted will frustrate the user and lower their productivity rate every time they perform a single action. To prevent the issue, I create a visual design and ensure the relationship between objects creates a compact design. I asked colleagues to test the system and measure the time it took them to complete a task and ensure it’s short enough to provide an excellent UX.”
This post is not just about dashboard design mistakes. It’s also about good practices for data visualization design in general. In order to make a dashboard, first plan what you want to show, where the information comes from, the purpose of using your dashboard, how to make it interactive, and what key performance indicators you’re going to present on your dashboard. Keep these rules in mind and you will immediately notice how much more engaged your users are.
Remember that dashboards are meant to be highly functional, but this functionality shouldn’t come at the cost of aesthetics. Want to quickly deploy dashboards that strike a good balance between functional and beautiful? Get started with our DIY Dashboard Designer today!
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