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6 ways to improve your digital dashboard

6 ways to improve your digital dashboard
Photo by Launde Morel
Many of you are likely be spending time putting together dashboards crammed full of what you think is key data to bring to the attention of your stakeholders, team, boss, whoever.

Unfortunately, all too often, these people rarely look at what you have sent them and if they do they say it’s all a ‘ sea of numbers’.

This post is about how to improve the impact of your dashboards, and includes techniques that you can easily use to quickly show your audience the key data points they need to notice, and ultimately take action upon.

I was inspired to put this post together by Stephen Few’s “Information Dashboard Design”, and if you would like more insight on dashboard design this is a great book. Stephen helpfully provided some better quality images from his book.

What is a dashboard?

There are many different forms of dashboard, but they all have these features in common:-

  • They are visual
  • They show the most important information for that audience
  • They include performance against business objectives
  • They can be monitored at a glance
  • They (normally) fit on on one screen

How we see

Before designing your dashboard, it’s useful to understand a bit more about how we process data and different forms of memory.

We have three types of memory

  1. Iconic memory (the visual sensory register)
  2. Short-term memory (working memory)
  3. Long-term memory

Although our eyes see everything, we only ‘record’ a small portion of this visual data. At the early stages of visual perception, we are noticing things below the level of consciousness. Certain visual cues are recognized at very high speed, so certain things stand out and are grouped together. This is iconic memory and is equivalent to the RAM on your computer, before being processed by the CPU.

Certain visual cues force our brain to notice and register these. This is called pre-attentive processing.

Let me show you what I mean. Below are several rows of numbers.

As fast as you can try and count how many times the number five appears in these four rows.

And now? It’s a lot easier, isn’t it?

This is because our very fast, almost unconscious ability to spot differences in data sets has allowed us to isolate what is different.

This is called pre-attentive processing, and using pre-attentive visual clues in your dashboard can help your audience quickly notice what you want them to see.

Short-term memory, which is temporary and has limited storage capacity, is where information is located whilst going through conscious processing.

Short-term memory is limited to storing only three to nine chunks of information at any one time. That is why it is important to ‘chunk up’ your visual data and ensure that each chunk of visual data is displayed efficiently, for example presenting patterns, like a line graph, rather than a series of numbers.

Displaying the data on just one screen means that all the ‘chunks’ are visible and retained by short-term memory. Scrolling screens have a deleterious impact on memorizing the data.

So, based on understanding a bit more about how we process visual data and the different types of memory we have, here are six tips to improve the impact you are making with your dashboards:-

Tip ♯1 – Use pre-attentive processing clues

You can use a number of different approaches to making something visually different – including colour intensity, size, line width hue, orientation, enclose and added marks.


Tip ♯2 – Use emphasis colours sparingly

Bold colours should be used sparingly, so when you do use them your audience’s eyes are quickly drawn to key areas of the dashboard.

Your most commonly used ‘standard’ colours should be neutral and subdued.

This allows your emphasis colours to stand out even more.

Tip ♯3 – Maximise your data:ink ratio

Your audience is concerned with the data on your dashboard. The more ink you are using to display your data visually, the lower the data:ink ratio.

Here is an example of what to avoid.

So what can you do to eliminate ink and increase your data:ink ratio?

Here’s several ink-hungry features that only increase your expenditure on printer cartridges rather than add anything to your audience’s understanding of the data:-

  • 3D charts / graphs
  • Borders around charts and graphs
  • Gridlines within graphs
  • Background fill
  • Pointless variation in colour

Tip ♯4 – Utilize bullet graphs and sparklines

Both bullet graphs and sparklines are useful devices for communicating data visually at-a-glance. They ease the burden on the audience on trying to interpret what is being presented.

Bullet graphs are a great way of incorporating the following information in one easy-to-read visual device:

  • Performance bands – poor, acceptable or good
  • Current performance
  • Target performance


Bullet graphs don’t come out of the box from Excel, so you will have to build your first manually and then use that one as a template, instructions provided here.

Sparklines are available in Excel 2010 onwards and found under the Insert menu.

Sparklines quickly provide meaning and context to how metrics have changed over time.

Tip ♯5 – Use clear icons and legible fonts

Legible fonts should be used throughout, something like Times New Roman, Arial or Verdana is fine.

Also you can use icons like these to quickly draw attention to key movements in data or unusual spikes.

Tip ♯6 – Avoid pie charts

Simplicity is the key when presenting data visually, to borrow the title from Steve Krug’s book on usability ‘Don’t Make Me Think’.

You want to use chart types that are easy to understand and don’t make your audience ‘work’ to find the meaning.

Look at this pie chart and see what it’s trying to tell you, and then consider how much easier it would have been to present this data in a straightforward bar graph.


This is not a complete list of all you can do to improve but these 6 tips can improve the impact and readability of your dashboards.

Here they are again:-

  1. Use pre-attentive visual cues (e.g. changes in colour, hue, orientation, size, line thickness, etc.)
  2. Use emphasis colours sparingly
  3. Maximize your data:ink ratio (less ink, more data)
  4. Utilise bullet graphs and sparklines
  5. Use clear icons and legible font
  6. Avoid pie charts

Applying these simple rules means your dashboard should look far more like this.

I have had some experience of presenting dashboards that use these approaches to dashboard design. A number of people have said they look dull, and they want to see more colours. In these situations, I call on the quote by Edward Tufte:-

“Inept graphics flourish because many [of us] believe that statistics are tedious and boring. It then follows that decorated graphics must pep up, animate, and all too often exaggerate what evidence there is in the data”

As analysts it is our job to ensure that we are firstly choosing the right KPIs, and secondly, designing dashboards that quickly communicate how the organization is performing against these KPIs.

In my view, if we are relying on pretty colours and complex graphics to ‘spice’ up the data, we have failed.


If you have any further thoughts on how to improve the impact of your dashboards, we would love to hear them.

Please leave a comment below.

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