Distilling Dashboard Design
Dashboards are everywhere. Whether it’s checking your daily workout stats on your smart device, analysing consumption at a utilities’ website, or cross-checking KPIs to look for global sales opportunities, you are bound to have encountered them at some point. Of course, not all dashboards have the same goal. Some are purely informational portals to signal data trends and provide awareness to the user while others offer actionable options based on contextual criteria. The wiki-era allows us unrestricted access to unlimited information whenever and wherever we desire. Without curation this world can be overwhelming, it’s with this in mind that the use of dashboards has grown, serving as digital filters to trim the fat and offer a leaner connected experience.
With such a range of demanding overarching goals, it’s up to us as designers to extract the wealth of relevant data, distill it down to its key criteria and translate the findings onto the screen. It’s within this process that we aim to focus on what’s meaningful to the user and design the experience in a way that enables them to choose an appropriate reaction. After all, dashboards are often central to the digital experience delivered by digital systems and can be relied on heavily to guide the subsequent actions of the user.
Dashboards are all about detail and it’s important to research thoroughly in order to achieve a successful result. They can be incredible tools that help a wide variety of users access all sorts of information but in order for them to be effective you must understand the key demographic, define their purpose and realise their expectations. Not grasping these key points could add friction to the experience, which ultimately leads to time lost and user frustration.
Two key questions to keep in mind are Who is it for and What do they want to achieve? The importance of asking Who is it for? should not be underestimated as serving up irrelevant information can be annoying, unproductive and costly. After all does the CFO really need to know the servers are operating at 95% capacity? Asking What do they want to achieve? helps set solid, targeted goals and is paramount to creating an effective product. Having tangible benchmarks also helps inform the testing phase of the process.
Once you’ve answered those initial questions, the process can be interrogated further. Context, frequency of use, accessibility, key functions and information hierarchy all need to be determined. Hosting client interviews and workshops enables you to extract these requirements from the users. Listing the requirements out on post it notes and asking the users to place them on simplified whiteboard wireframe can help raise questions of relevance and prominence. (citation) The aim is to distill all the information down to the essential navigation, core features and key processes. It is the designer’s responsibility to question each and every decision.
With a solid foundation in place you’re almost ready to design. If you’ve followed a procedure like the one above you should already have a basic outline of the wireframes. However, feedback from the workshops and user interviews should be applied to a design while taking other considerations into account.
Wireframes should not only be informed by the user, but also the platform. Knowing how the information will be served is vital as the infrastructure impacts how the data is delivered. Multiple platforms could be serving the same dashboard causing information silos whereby content areas could coexist but never overlap. This means that the hierarchy has to apply to both the dashboard as a whole, and also within their individual content areas. Finally, rendering complicated infographics in parallel could mean that server resources struggle to deliver within adequate loading times and therefore lead to a sub-par user experience. All of these are considerations that ultimately affect design decisions.
Scroll distance is important when you have the whole screen real estate but responsive design is a factor that impacts the type of information served at particular times. We must remember that in many cases dashboards are tools that facilitate vital processes for both employees and consumers alike, all of whom have varying digital competencies. Although the more experienced may search for visual cues and know how to navigate pages more thoroughly, casual and newer users will need more hand-holding by having more on display in a single screen’s viewport. Finding the balance between displaying all information on screen at any one time and implementing features that require further navigation could be the difference between retaining the audience’s interest or losing them completely.
To the uninitiated this could just mean the appearance of the front-end, but it’s much more than that. Weeding out alienating terminology and enforcing a more positive, less formal approach helps to connect with the user and makes them feel like they’ve accomplished something. Any interactions should be subtle and speedy and feel like they’re guiding the user rather than acting as overly flamboyant window dressing. Finally, especially with information rich dashboards, the importance of colour theory can not be underestimated. Without adequate consideration to palette selection, contrast and tonal range, the resulting effect could be the difference between success and failure.
Your project will be defined by how successful it is in meeting the user need. How well your proposed solution will do this is something only users can tell you. This doesn’t have to be exclusive to the future intended users. Good design theory transcends boundaries and gaining perspective from outside the intended market could lead to new insight missing from the original process. When testing, refer back to the original goals and if the theory doesn’t hold up, find out whether iterations can get you there. If not, it may make sense to go back to an earlier part of the process. Having regular feedback sessions can help to minimise the chances of going all-in on a false requirement.
We are in an era where design is being valued more than ever. It is not acceptable to force-feed function, speak in abstract terminology or mould users to an ill-conceived workflow. This is as true for Enterprise software as it is for consumer focused interfaces. Design, language, workflow and function are all now part of the same narrative and are omnipresent in our daily lives. Underestimating their value is costly both to productivity and balance sheets alike. The great news is that people and businesses are taking note of this. The responsibility lies with us as designers to help distill that information into something meaningful, beautiful, functional, frictionless and ultimately amazing. If we can do that then we’ve done our jobs and in-turn helped others to do theirs.