During my time at Facebook, I worked almost exclusively on one problem: dashboards. More specifically, how to present frequently-updated data in the most efficient way to business users. And so today, I am starting a series of blog posts / tutorials about dashboards.
Why talk about dashboards?
Legit questions. Dashboards are so uncool and boring! I could make more advanced tutorials on d3 or canvas or processing (which is also… in the plans). Or update new cool visualizations.
But the interest of discussing dashboards is precisely because they are not cool. In the first part to his Information Dashboard Design, Stephen Few presents a lengthy gallery of terrible dashboards he collected over years. Most of these dashboards exhibit a serious and obvious production flaws: they are often gaudy, using 3d columns or pie charts, when not taking the dashboard metaphor too literally with replicas of gauges and meters. Here’s a typical dashboard from the early 2000s:
In the past 5 years though, these problems have largely been solved. The overall “Graph Design IQ”, to borrow another Stephen Few concept, has greatly increased. People who make charts are increasingly aware that there are some best practices to build them and that there are a variety of forms beyond the core “Excel” chart types such as bar charts, line charts, pie charts and scatterplots. Besides, anyone who had to code a chart from scratch realized that, as opposed to Excel or similar software where users can rely on defaults, every detail of a chart needs decisions: not only how to encode the data (ie bars, lines etc.) but also whether to have gridlines or not and if so how, how to format axes, how to present legends, and so on and so forth. Oftentimes, having to make these decisions implies taking the time to think about these choices which makes the overall chart quality stronger. Also, in products like Tableau (and to be honest in every version of Excel) the default choices are much more robust than they used to be.
Down with the old, up with the new
While these old problems are as good as solved, dashboards are still not awesome because they are plagued with a set of new problems.
First, the rules and best practices for charts that we keep perpetuating were thought for an old world of printed or otherwise static charts, not the interactive environments such as web or mobile. As such, some recommendations of the 90s have become myths that need to be busted (I’m looking squarely at you, data-ink ratio).
Second, dashboard design is neither a data visualization problem, nor a visual design problem. By this I mean that thinking strictly as a designer or as a data visualization specialist might provide a textbook answer to some well-identified problems that arise with dashboards, but neither of these approaches is optimal.
The not-so-secret secret to dashboards is to apply product thinking. How will people use the dashboard? That should guide what you try to accomplish.
Finally, it’s really critical to realize that dashboards are not collection of individual charts, but an ensemble. Components of a dashboard should not be thought individually but as pieces that fit with one another.
Each of these themes will be the subject of an individual article!
Follow me on Pinterest
On Pinterest, I maintain two dashboard-related boards you may find interesting.
The first is called “Dashboards” (duh) and is examples of complete dashboards, with no judgment on quality, most often found in the wild.
The second, data vis / dashboard UI elements, is centered around lower-level problems such as charts, parts of dashboards and their visual design. Virtually every dashboard example found on a visual design platform like dribbble or beyance is not so much a true dashboard than a collection of individual charts, not that it’s not interesting.