Probing the mind for dashboard design

Danielle Graiser
Aug 20 · 5 min read

Devouring data in a dash

Image for post
Image for post

The humble dashboard, always there when you need it, giving you the exact information you’re looking for — UNTIL IT DOESN’T! I’m sure you’ve been there; perhaps you were doing your internet banking, maybe trying to figure out where that last transaction came from — but no! You’re getting fed share prices and wild goose chases when it’s the last thing you want to see.

In the defense of every less-than-perfect dashboard in the digital realm — it’s not easy. Pinning down exactly the right amount of information at the perfect balance of convenience and accessibility is no simple task. It takes a serious deep-dive into the psychology of your users to get right.

So when it’s time to do some dashboard design at TouchFoundry, we don’t go diving head first into fanciful designs without making sure we’ve got our facts aligned first. If you’ve read Ryan’s article on the qualitative research route, you already know all about it. But when it comes to dashboard design in particular, a nuanced approach must be employed — a careful juggling act between data and human cognition, if you will.

What makes the cut?

Let’s begin by asking ourselves the obvious question: what are we trying to achieve? A dashboard can host any number of aspects of an area of interest, but you can’t just go throwing a carnival of spinning knobs and dials at your users — it just won’t make sense. In fact, that brings us to the key challenge of dashboard design: presenting the perfect balance of information that provides convenience in its accessibility without overwhelming the user with too much at once.

Usability testing is always key when it comes to UX design — but if you want to know more about that, take a look through our Research and UX articles, it’s something we take very seriously. So read up, and make sure you’ve got a three-sixty degree understanding of your users before you jot down a dot of that design.

As you design and test and further iterate your design (remember, only a fool would think they’ve hacked their userbase’s minds on the first try), your usability tests should reveal that your users can be broken down into a series of roles, i.e. the different types of users that will be interacting with your dashboard. Each user role comes with its own set of objectives. These objectives will once again force you into a balancing act as you try to accommodate the entirety of your user base within the limited real-estate of your dashboard. Your highest priority is to allow all users to understand patterns, trends and the raw data as a whole. Usability tests will undoubtedly be littered with individual users’ personal needs and quirks, and it’s the job of the experienced designer to separate those personal expectations from the true functions that the user base as a whole will benefit from.

So your usability testing has informed you of the challenges you’re going to face — now how do you balance everything perfectly? It’s all about thinking in line with the limits of human cognition, that is: attention, memory, learning, reasoning, producing and understanding language, problem-solving and decision-making.

Be a brain-whisperer

As we begin representing huge amounts of data into a neat set of visuals such as symbols, graphs and gauges, we need to consider how to make this information as digestible as possible for the human brain.

Visual impact is the name of the game. Restrict the number of items on your dashboard, the short term memory can only handle so much. Realize that dashboard users are skimmers, they want the thinking done for them — they want answers. With your roles in mind, consider what information takes highest priority and what will be universally sought after across all roles when looking at your dashboard. Give those points the limelight — ensure the eye naturally darts straight to them so that the data skimmers swooping in for insights can get what they need and continue with business as fast and efficiently as possible.

This doubles in the reverse — niche information that only a few roles out of your user base will find relevant should be subtle and undemanding. Yes, it might take those users a moment longer to zero in on what they’re looking for, but that’s a sacrifice you’ll have to make for the sake of presenting your data in the clearest way possible to the largest portion of your user base possible.

Image for post
Image for post

Play mind games

So, how do you make features of your dashboard more impactful whilst playing down others? The answer boils down to comparisons. Display methods need to orchestrate meaningful comparisons through figures, graphics and icons. These comparisons ultimately guide your dashboard’s true function, so ensuring they’re relevant and, quite simply, correct, is vital, because if you find yourself comparing incompatible pieces of data, you’re not giving your users the insights they need — you’re making them jump to false conclusions.

Creating meaningful comparisons can be boiled down to four core principles:

  • Combine data: create graphs or tables that compare two metrics

And keep in mind

The aim of your dashboard is not to give your user all the information at once, it’s about ensuring they can get the most important information as quickly as possible. Be a minimalist. Reduce complexity. Empathize with the minds of your users. Be a brain-whisperer.


Digital innovation through research, design, automation and development

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store