Top 10 Principles of Dashboards Design 2021

Thursday February 11, 2021

A dashboard is designed to display data to provide information and actionable insights for your business. Randomly showing data on a few charts and graphs without hierarchy is not a proper dashboard, it is a noticeboard which is displaying all possible data available. Certain UX principles apply on dashboards to make them visually appealing and useful for the key stakeholders. Here are the top 10 principles of dashboard design to guide you in the process of designing and updating your dashboard.

With the experience of designing more than 50 dashboards for various industries and business intelligence software


“A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.”

Stephen Few

In his book Information Dashboard Design, Stephen Few explains the great dashboards are clear, intuitive, and customizable.

  • They communicate information quickly.
  • Display information clearly and efficiently.
  • Show trends and changes in data over time.
  • They are easily customizable.
  • The most important widgets and data components are effectively presented in a limited space.
Dashboard showing Principles of dashboard design
Dashboard Design by UI8.net

Top 10 principles of effective dashboards design

  1. Start with users, not the data
  2. Choosing the Right Data Visualization
  3. Telling a story
  4. Provide Immediate Access to Relevant Info
  5. Logical Layout: the Inverted Pyramid
  6. Minimalism: Less Is More
  7. Round your numbers
  8. Use size and position to make priorities clear
  9. Double your margins
  10. Have a clean, uncluttered dashboard

Start with users, not the data

A dashboard is not at all about data, it's about the information it provides to users. It's about enabling users to use that information to answer questions. Data without a clear purpose is useless. For example, an e-learning portal is having 2000 users, and showing them as 2000 users are just a number without any purpose. When you add a parameter of user acquisition to show numbers of users acquired in a month or a week, that makes sense to management and drive actions.

So what does, starting with users mean in reality? It means speaking to users before you even touch any data. It means asking them what sort of information they need to know; what sort of questions they need to answer and what their ultimate objectives are. It means finding out who the users of a dashboard would be, what makes them tick, and what their needs and requirements are. It means finding out where a dashboard would fit into their wider journey.

Without knowing these questions, and without knowing what the important information is, it is impossible to design a great dashboard?

Choosing the Right Data Visualization

Select the appropriate type of data visualization according to its purpose.

One of the most overlooked Principles of dashboard design is the need to select the right visualization tools. Designers often get carried away, selecting various charts, maps, tables, and graphs. For dashboards, selecting the appropriate kind of data visualization is imperative. Cluttering your charts with superfluous data labels is only useless and confusing. Before choosing a visualization, consider which type of information you are trying to relay:

  • Relationship: the connection between two or more variables, use a pie chart to show comparative information.
  • Comparison: compare two or more variables side by side, use a bar chart for comparative information, but with more variables.
  • Composition: breaking data into separate components, using graphs for measuring trends over time.
  • Distribution: range and grouping of values within data, use tables for sorting various variables; for helping organize and communicate meaning.

A piece of advice from Realmonkey design team - Do not include any visualization tools for the most relevant KPIs. The top KPIs should be displayed in plain text at the top of the screen, helping them stand out compared to the rest of the data.

Telling a story

Your dashboard should tell a holistic story to the user. You should combine all the metrics appropriately to form a story and provide a snapshot of what is going on and prioritize the information for what the users need to see.

A few story features you can include on dashboards to ensure that the information is effectively grasped by the user.

  • Set the Plan: Like every good story, the plot should be clear, and problems should be highlighted. Use the right data analysis questions to explore the data insights. Before presenting the storyboard, make sure you know who your target audience is and what’s the unique content they are looking for.
  • Concentrate on Important Elements and Themes: Like any story, your dashboard story must include a beginning, a middle, and an end with all the right details. Thoroughly recording everything that occurred is not necessary. You should add colorful charts and graphs with a customized background to create a cohesive experience for your audience.
  • Offer Recognizable Figures to save Users’ Time: Use the terms, graphics, metrics, and metaphors that are recognizable within the organization is helpful for users to understand data clearly without wasting much time.
  • Levels of detail: Using different subtitles to give bits of knowledge and keep up the interest of the user can certainly elevate the whole experience of the dashboard story.

Provide Immediate Access to Relevant Info

Your dashboard should provide relevant information in about 5 seconds. Yes, that's the time it should take to scan the dashboard for you or the relevant stakeholder who needs to find the information on the dashboard.

Good designers use the "Inverted Pyramid" layout to determine the placement of each piece of data. The most important data should be placed in a prominent spot on the dashboard. After including the most important data, display the remaining information in a logical order. The typical layout starts with the most significant data at the top of the screen. The middle section is reserved for trends while granular details are placed at the bottom of the dashboard.

Users can quickly see important insights at the top of the page. They can then scroll down to analyze the trends, which provide context to the insights at the top. Users that want to drill deeper into the details can scroll down to the bottom of the page for supporting data.

Minimalism: Less Is More

Each dashboard should contain no more than 5-9 visualizations.

Cognitive psychology tells us that the human brain can only comprehend around 7 (+) (-) 2 images at one time. So this is the number of items you should display in your dashboards.

Many designers try to display as many details as possible into their dashboard to create a complete picture. While this might sound good in theory, more than 5-9 visualizations just translates into clutter and visual noise that distracts and detracts from the dashboard’s intended purpose.

You can avoid visual clutter by using filters and hierarchies or simply by breaking your dashboard into two or more separate dashboards.

Round your numbers

Let's do a test

Conversion rate = 5.783% or 5.7%

Revenue = $11367.69 or $11367

Which is more recognizable?

It's tempting to be ultra-precise with numbers when you want to be accurate on the information you provide on the dashboard but any number which is rounded off is more recognizable at a glance. Displaying data with ultra-precise like conversion rate to 3 decimal places or revenue to the nearest cent. But this kind of detail just isn’t necessary and may exaggerate minor changes.

It’s generally best to round your numbers.

Use size and position to make priorities clear

Anything you include on your dashboard should be important, but not all metrics are of the same importance on a dashboard. To prioritize metrics, use size and position. Your most important metric should go in the top left corner where the eyes go first. If you have room, you can also make your most important metric bigger than the others.

Double your margins

White space, also known as negative space, is the area between elements in a design composition. Readers aren’t usually aware of the importance of the negative space, but designers pay a lot of attention to it. If the white space is not balanced, a copy will be hard to read. That’s why negative space matters as much as any other typography element.

Have a clean, uncluttered dashboard

Creating a simple interface is one of the most important Principles of dashboard design. Make it as easy as possible for users to analyze the information on the screen.

A good dashboard should be as clean and uncluttered. A good dashboard should not have any unnecessary text, or unnecessary graphics or imagery. You should use good visual design practice, such as white space, alignment, and grouping to help visually connect related information and remove any clutter and noise from the dashboard.

Group data into categories and separate each category with a box or line, helping to separate the most essential data from the least. Each section requires clear labels in readable fonts.

A simple design also includes a minimal amount of colors and fonts. Use a minimalist design scheme with just two or three colors for the various visualization tools and one font for each set of text. For example, all headers should use the same font.

Design the dashboard last

We recommend designing the dashboard at last. A dashboard is a summary view of everything else and displays key info from various parts of the application. It’s just more practical to design it in the end.

First, gather the majority of views from the application and design them before you design the dashboard else, you will need to constantly go back and update your dashboard designs while you are working on all the other pages. 

Once you have all components ready, you will have a ton of info to put together in a dashboard. So designing a dashboard, at last, saves a lot of time for you.

Conclusion & Guidance

Apply these Principles of dashboard design to your dashboards. Dashboards are extremely cost-effective by minimizing the potential for human error and streamlining the decision-making processes dependent on data interpretation.

At Realmonkey, we got expertise in designing dashboards for business intelligence software and other kinds of applications that have a lot of data to represent.

Need help in designing dashboard

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