Dashboard Design: Advice from Hollywood

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The great movies of Hollywood have inspired us in so many ways—to choose occupations, to seek adventure, to travel, to understand the human experience, and more. But did you know that Hollywood has given us some great principles of dashboard design? Here are ten of those golden rules, in the words of some of Hollywood’s greatest characters. (Note: Just for fun, the movie names are listed at the bottom of this post to give you a chance to see how many you know.)

  1. “Less is more.”

The purpose of a dashboard is to give as much information as possible to the user in a short amount of time. So “less is more” may seem a bit counter-intuitive, but when the screen is crowded with charts and graphs with small fonts, it means the user has to expend a lot of effort just to see what the dashboard is trying to convey. Better to pick 4-12 broad, relevant, and actionable measures that convey the big picture at a glance.

  1. “Now, just keep it simple.” 

To help the user really see the data, get rid of all those superfluous design elements that you think make the dashboard look “really professional”—things like drop shadows, outlines, gradients, leader dots, and 3D. The dashboard will look cleaner and the information will pop off the screen.

  1. “This guy is so full of angles and gimmicks and twists…he starts to describe a doughnut and it comes out a pretzel.” Ditch the gimmicks.

Some visualization formats don’t add enough value to justify the amount of space they take up. Gauges and dials were popular when dashboards first came out because they mimicked a car dashboard. Now most dashboards in new cars don’t even have them. Adding slick visualization or functionality for the sake of improving the attractiveness of the dashboard will probably backfire. Users may be attracted to the novelty for a day or even a week, but anything on a dashboard that doesn’t provide real information will soon be thought of as a waste of time, if it’s thought of at all.

  1. “Look, I can’t be any clearer than how crystal clear I’m being.” Be clear about what you are trying to communicate by using the best visualization.

Because of the explosion in kind and quantity of data, new visualizations like tree diagrams, spark lines, bullet graphs, and circular time series representations have been developed. All of these are very useful in the right circumstances. But using a cool new visualization for the sake of including something new may make the data hard to understand. Be sure to pick the right visualization to tell your story.

  1. “I was enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety.” Include a little variety.

Keeping in mind both that you shouldn’t add different kinds of visualizations for the sake of making the dashboard more attractive and that the visualization needs to be the best suited for the data, it is also important to introduce some variety in the dashboard. If you have six visualizations on the dashboard, you don’t need six different types, but a little variety will help the user know where to look and keep him or her focused.

  1. “Pink. It’s Pink.” Use color judiciously.

Don’t add color just to make your dashboard more attractive. Color is a great way to add information, but use of color must be judicious and consistent. Using a whole rainbow of colors will create chaos in the mind of the user. Better to make everything a neutral color like black, gray, tan, or dark blue and use spot colors to get users to really home in on something in particular. If you use green and red, green should always be “good” and red should always be “bad.” Don’t reverse accepted conventions and think adding a color key will ensure everyone understands.

  1. “At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t.”  Highlight the changes.

It’s a good practice to highlight things that change. Show variance to prior period or set up traffic lights or alerts so users know exactly where to zero in. Again, if using red, yellow, and green, stick with conventional meanings.

  1. “Dig a little deeper. Think of something that we’ve never thought of before.” Give your users the opportunity to dig a little deeper.

Instead of trying to cram every little detail onto the dashboard, make your dashboard interactive. Allow users to drill down, aggregate, change regions, change accounts, look at trends…whatever they can think of within their security rights. This will keep the dashboard cleaner, allowing top level data to pop, while enabling the user to look for answers to the questions presented in the data.

  1. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Include only information your users care about.

You can have the best looking dashboard with terrific functionality, but if the dashboard is filled with data your users don’t care about, it won’t get a second glance. You can’t make one dashboard that will please everyone. You have to create role-based dashboards with timely, actionable information—actionable by the user. Include KPIs that the user gets compensated for managing. Does the user get rewarded for being the top salesperson? Include a list of the top 5 so he or she knows what to do to get to the number one spot. Make the dashboard relevant to the user.

  1. “Oh dear, I keep forgetting I’m not in Kansas.” Provide context for the dashboard user.

Sometimes a single number will give a lot of information, but most of the time, it doesn’t. Be sure to include comparison to budget or target for KPIs or other accounting data, top ten lists for ranked data, or data over a reasonable time period.  Use heat maps or bubble maps to show relative performance. Make sure the user can determine if the data shown is good or bad.

So there you have it—some of Hollywood’s best advice on dashboard design. Then there’s this one—“If you build it, they will come.” This is one of Hollywood’s worst pieces of advice, at least for dashboards. People will not use your dashboard, no matter how pretty it us, unless they think it will provide them with valuable insight. And the insight received has to be perceived as greater than the effort expended to get it. So keep your dashboards filled with relevant and timely information. Make your dashboards easy to use and comprehend and soon your users won’t know how they managed before they had them.

Join BIO for a free webinar to see how BIO dashboards can help you achieve greater insight for better decision making and increased profitability. And please contact me at 203.705.4648 or by email at sandi@bio4analytics.com if you have any questions about BIO or business intelligence in general.

By Sandi Richards Forman of BIO Analytics Corp., Microsoft Dynamics Business Intelligence (BI) Solution Provider

The Movies:

  1. “Less is more.” (Angels in the Outfield, 1994)
  2. “Now, just keep it simple.” (Hitch, 2005)
  3. “This guy is so full of angles and gimmicks and twists…he starts to describe a doughnut and it comes out a pretzel.” (The Fortune Cookie, 1966)
  4. “Look, I can’t be any clearer than how crystal clear I’m being.” (Transformers, 2007)
  5. “I was enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety.” (The Great Gatsby, 2013)
  6. “Pink. It’s Pink.” (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967)
  7. “At first glance, everything looked the same. It wasn’t.” (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956)
  8. “Dig a little deeper. Think of something that we’ve never thought of before.” (Winnie the Pooh, 2007)
  9. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” (Gone with the Wind, 1939)
  10. “Oh dear, I keep forgetting I’m not in Kansas.” (The Wizard of Oz, 1939)Last paragraph: “If you build it, they will come.” (Field of Dreams, 1989)

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