Ultimate guide to Dashboard Design best practices

Dashboards help provide end users with an overview of key analytical metrics in one intuitive visual screen. Knowing dashboard design best practices helps make the displays useful.
14 min read

Dashboards are a great way for decision makers in any organization to get a bird’s eye view of all their data through visualizations. When I have an intuitive dashboard, I’m able to scan through Key performance indicators (KPI) without shifting my tabs to individual data sets. Dashboard design seeks to present data in a user-friendly way. This means I do not have to be a data analyst to make sense of the data presented.

Over the years, I have interacted with various dashboard UI designs. I can tell you having the right dashboard design will play a critical role in the time you spend sifting through loads of data. Extracting data and texts then extrapolating them in various excel worksheets is a tiring and burdensome process. With data visualization, I can perform comparative analysis across diverse data sets. Due to my vast experience dealing in dashboard design for various websites, I have formulated a list of dashboard design best practices below.

Top Dashboard Design principles to adopt in data visualization

1. Determine the user intent

The first question I ask before designing a dashboard is what my users expect from the dashboard. The biggest mistake one can make is having too much irrelevant information on their dashboard. A cluttered dashboard is an eye-sore and may move the user from finding the solutions they seek. It also beats the purpose of dashboard design tools, which is to aggregate all your important information

One way to decipher user intent is to create fictitious user personas during the dashboard design UX phase. Here I can determine what crucial information should be displayed first and what kind of information will require the user to click on a link for a separate screen.

1. Displaying data on the visualization screens

Once I’m done determining the user intent and key analytical metrics that I want displayed on the screen, I then have to consider how data will be displayed on the screen. While there is no one predefined dashboard display template or format, some general principles apply.

• I have on display all my information on one screen. Users of the dashboard design should see a summary of all their most important performance metrics on one screen.

• Most important items should be highlighted and labeled properly for easy visibility. The rule is to have the most important items displayed on the top left side of the screen.

• Users should have the ability to dig deeper into the displayed data. The essence of good dashboard design best practices is to avoid clutter on the main page. Space should be maximized to avoid irrelevant statistics from finding itself on the dashboard.

• Users should also get the ability to customize their dashboards to suit their own unique preferences.

• Give the user the ability to filter the data sets hence have different views.

• Keep it simple and avoid cluttering your dashboard screens.

3. Choosing the right dashboard type

Dashboards vary in their types. Since they are used to monitor complex data sets, I begin my dashboard design journey by identifying what the end user expectations are concerning the presented data. This prevents me from presenting irrelevant data to your end-users. There are three main types of dashboard design types – Operational, analytical & strategic. I am going to delve into each of them:

a) Operational dashboard

This dashboard displays time sensitive data. The operational dashboard keeps updating itself frequently so that it can display the latest data changes. For many organizations, the operational dashboard will help them stay ahead of their problems. Since I am tracking data in real time, I can check for any problematic shifts in data and solve a problem before it becomes out of control.

Operational dashboards have use in various industries including manufacturing, running marketing campaigns or web analytics. How I arrange my operational dashboard matters a lot as viewers want to view information at a glance. The dashboard design tip is to have the most relevant and critical display metrics on top left corner. Less important visuals should then be spread out through the screen with smaller displays.

b) Analytical dashboard

The analytical dashboards are essential for uncovering trends in large volumes of data. Data displayed can be used for predictive analysis. Most of the analytical dashboard design examples tend to have many graphical elements. Analytical dashboards are mostly used in business intelligence and help key decision makers uncover trends faster.

c) Strategic dashboards

These are mostly used by senior management to track their Key performance indicators (KPIs) against their defined strategic goals. Performance is tracked based on certain defined timeframes like months, quarters and years. Dashboard design for the strategic dashboards begins in defining a company’s overall long-term journey.

4) Different forms of visualization – Which is ideal?

Once I have decided the kind of data I want to display, I then consider the type of visualization type to go for. This helps me convey information in the best way to users. Here are a few dashboard design visualization examples:

Line graphs
These tend to be the most popular and are used to plot data on a Y and X axis. I use line graphs to identify drop and growth in trends since everything is plotted on a continuous line. The best part about line graphs is that they present data in a precise way that is visible to all persons.

• Bar charts
Bar charts are great for comparative analysis. I can use different colors to represent my inputs and depending on the height of the bar, I’m able to gather insights.

Pie charts
While pie charts are very common, they are not the most suitable way to display data. For one, you have to remember the color schemes being represented on the chart. From experience, I have encountered many challenges trying to compare the various variables on the chart – especially if they are very small. The memory strain needed during analyzing pie charts causes many dashboard design UX experts to abandon them.

I use this when am comparing multiple variables and when all I want to see are trends. The sparklines have the downside of not displaying individual values.

Dashboard design principles dictate that bar and line charts are the best for digesting information. When inputting valuables, I have the time values on the x-axis. When using line graphs I try not to overwhelm the user by having more than 5 values. I try avoiding pie charts as much as possible as they are the hardest to comprehend.

When I want to compare different items, I go with the table or bar charts. When displaying data over time I use column or line charts. To show relationships among my data sets, I choose the scatter plots or bubble plots while for static data sets, pie charts are ideal.

5) Finding a balance between color tones

While it is true that dashboards should be visually appealing, it goes against dashboard design best practices to go overboard when it comes to color selection. The rule is to have consistency in choosing your colors. The point is not to use so many different color tones that it becomes stressing for the user to focus on key data. I recommend sticking to three to four color tones then tweaking the gradients a little bit.

Whenever I want to draw the viewers’ attention to a particular section of data, I use intense colors. Dashboard design tools are designed to offer guidelines for consistency.

6) How to select the right layout for displaying data

When it comes to dashboard design best practices, it is important to remember that it is not all about data and getting the right graphs on screen. The layout will play a big part in boosting readability. The dashboard design principle for layout is that the most important information should be displayed first in the left top side of the screen.

The basis for this principle is that it is customary for most people – who happen to be right handed – to start reading information from the top left side. Whenever a user opens a dashboard screen their focus will shift there first. It is on this section that I present a general overview of key analytics visuals. I have more important information at the center of the screen then as I move to the bottom left side of the screen, less important information.

Another crucial dashboard design tip/idea is to group related graphs/charts together. If I was presenting sales related data and it is very important to the user, I’d have it on the top part of the screen, grouped together, and then put the marketing data on the bottom part. The rule is closely related data should be grouped in close proximity to each other. Here I check out various dashboard design templates and uncover the one that best works for you.

7) Give the end user control

Having a good dashboard UI design helps shift the power of data visualization to the user. By having an intuitive dashboard, I allow the user to determine what kind of information they would want displayed. Some visualization types can work for one user while to another become totally unreadable.

A good example is when working with pie charts. Users should not spend time trying to display the right amount of data on their dashboards. I will make it easier for you, for a better dashboard experience. The right dashboard design software is the one that allows users to customize their layouts and content displayed as they wish. Also, I can create various user types in an effort to help you understand what their unique preferences are. One user group may have a preference for particular data sets to be more important than the other. This need to be factored in their dashboard design.

8) Overcoming dashboard screen clutter

One thing that most dashboard designers like myself have to battle with is how to fit all the information that the user needs into one page. The problem arises when different members of the organization all need to view different data sets. The kind of information that the sales team wants is very different from what the HR department requires.

While different themes need to be created for different departments, this only leads to small displays that erode the user experience. The dashboard design best practice would be to create separate dashboards for each department.

Another way would be to condense the information. Instead of displaying the full data set, I can group your information. For example, if working with sales figures, the Managing director can get aggregate of sales figures for the country while the sales manager gets the sales grouped into geographical regions.

When dealing with real-time data, I can choose to only show notifications for the changes instead of the whole data set. This may mean setting notifications for when there is unusual patterns like dips in sales or unusual spikes. In some instances, graphical representations can simply be replaced with texts. If one wants to dig deeper they can simply click on the texts for further graphical representations.


Dashboards are one of the most powerful ways to present complex data sets to users. Beginning your dashboard design strategy with the end-user in mind helps you capture specific goals that you can incorporate in the design phase. Dashboard design best practices are meant to create user-friendly visuals that display the most relevant data, vital for decision making. It’s like finding the music in the noise. Since end-users vary, the design may differ with different organizations. An interactive dashboard lets people see the story that matters to them.

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