The DataHero Blog

4 Design Principles for Your Best Data Dashboard

June 6th, 2017

Imagine you’re a pilot cruising along with clear skies when suddenly you start to lose altitude. Your heart racing, you quickly scan the data on your dashboard to figure out and fix the problem so that the plane doesn’t crash.


When you’re piloting a plane, you have seconds to read the dashboard and find the answer. For your business, you have a little more time, but the purpose of the dashboard remains the same. Your data dashboard should present a quick and easy way to get the answers you need to make the right decisions.

The way the data is presented is as important as the data itself.

The best data dashboards help you process information quickly and accurately. When personalizing your dashboard, it is important to understand a few design principles that will help you digest and use the data as quickly as possible.

Here are four design principles to help you customize your dashboard and get the most out of your data:

1. Curate Your Charts: More Data Doesn’t Mean More Insights

We have more data than we know what to do with, which means we have endless opportunities to create more and more charts. When thinking about your dashboard, it is tempting to include a lot of data points. If you are running a business, it seems reasonable to want to learn as much as possible from your dashboard.

When your brain receives more information than it can handle, it tends to slow down or even abandon the task.

Cognitive psychology tells us that the human brain can only comprehend around seven (plus or minus two) images at one time. Seven is the magic number, but usually five to nine charts are acceptable. Including more than nine charts increases your cognitive load, which often leads to an inability to draw conclusions from the data.

Dashboard designers follow the 5 second rule – this is the amount of time it should take you to find the relevant information as you scan the dashboard.

If you have too many charts on your dashboard, consider creating multiple dashboards based on a topic or a question you are trying to answer. Start thinking about your dashboards as a tool to support decision-making as opposed to just a laundry list of KPIs (key performance indicators).

2. F-Shape Reading Pattern: Prioritize Your Data on the Page

The brain naturally prioritizes visual information based on where it is positioned on the page.

Countless studies show that people tend to scan a page in a similar manner. It is commonly referred to as the F-Shape pattern. The eyes look first for information on the top and left. This is a natural behavior based on how we read. Users then focus their attention down the left side and then the middle. The bottom and right are barely noticed by the user at all.

Keeping in mind how the brain groups and interpret visuals, you will want to create a structure that prioritizes information based on the story you are trying to tell. And like any good story, your structure should have a clear beginning and guide your eyes to where you need to go next.

The most important data points should start in the upper left corner. From there create a hierarchy of support data related to your main chart. The lower level charts on the bottom usually provide context and background data. These can be positioned in a logical sequence to scan quickly.


3. The Data-Ink Ratio: Minimizing Clutter Helps You Focus

In his book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Edward Tufte introduces the idea of a data-ink ratio. Data-ink is any element of a visual that can’t be erased without losing context or critical content. Non-data-ink is defined as any element that doesn’t contribute anything valuable.

A well-designed dashboard will maximize its data-ink proportion. Elements that fall into the non-data-ink category include an overuse of color, 3D charts, using colors that are too similar and the use of shadows. By removing or limiting these elements, your brain will be able to focus in on exactly what you are trying to present.


4. Color Usage: A Tool to Communicate Importance

Humans are hardwired to react to certain colors. Bright colors grab our attention while softer colors will relax us. Colors themselves hold meaning and convey information, which you should consider to avoid any unintended messaging.

For your dashboard, colors can be used to highlight key information and to show relationships. When a color makes a particular component stand out from the others, we naturally pay attention and want to know why it is different.

Another important principle is to remain consistent with your color usage. Always use the same color for the same item on all your charts. It will reduce your mental effort when skipping around from chart to chart.

If you prefer to choose your own colors for your dashboard, the rule of thumb is to choose a mix of saturated and unsaturated colors. Primarily use soft unsaturated colors, except when you wish to highlight a specific data point. Bright saturated colors should be used in moderation for highlighting purposes only. The most common colors are blue, orange and gray.


If the idea of choosing colors seems daunting, DataHero provides custom color palettes. These palettes were developed and tested to find the best color combinations which maintain legibility regardless of the varying amount of colors on the chart.

An Intuitive Dashboard Data Design Keeps Your Business on the Right Course

These design principles will help you and your team comprehend and use the information effectively for decision-making. By prioritizing the right information on the page, removing clutter and using color to emphasize the key points within the data, your dashboard design will be intuitive and enjoyable to use.

When your dashboard tells a clear and concise story, you and your entire team will be able to quickly identify and fix issues, connect the dots more easily, and continue steering the business in the right direction.

By Walter Chen

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