Make reports better, not just prettier

We hear from people contacting us as well as from other designers that often the design role in the dashboard project is to “just make it look pretty.”    

Well, pretty only gets you so far. Users may pause and stay longer than the typical 15 seconds on the page if pretty, but did they walk away with or accomplish what they wanted?  Do you want users or customers to say it was pretty or useful?

When delivering an information experience™ there are more important goals that outweigh pretty every time.  Here are just a few to consider when designing an information experience.

1. Be purposeful with design choices

Be really intentional on how you incorporate visual elements into your design.  When used with intent it tells the user to take notice of what you’re sharing.  

Use Color Intentionally - Color has meaning. It can communicate emotion, feeling. It can also draw your attention to certain things. To make sure you draw attention to the right things, it’s important to limit the amount of color you use. For example, see the example below.  While mostly grayscale, your eyes are drawn to the red.

                                             Image source: Information Dashboard Design, by Stephen Few

                                             Image source: Information Dashboard Design, by Stephen Few

Avoid information overload - Gradual reveal can be used to guide people through information, while still allowing them to explore.

Simple is best - Use the simplest appropriate visualization for the data you are presenting. Consider what question you are trying to answer and communicate that as quickly as you can with a simple visual that’s easy to understand.

2. Design for Action

Ideo in their September 2015 HBR article, Design for Action, highlight many examples of designing for action.  Much of what they cite is relevant to information displays as well. Some other things to keep in mind:

Integration with workflow - People need to work quickly and efficiently and if it takes too long to get to the information they need, they will move on. Think through your user or customers workflow and how your design can best integrate.

Provide next steps - Keep your users end goal in mind and help them get there. Give them meaningful next steps at appropriate times. In the example below, LinkedIn helps you with setting up your profile by letting you know how much has been completed and which items are still left to complete so you know what’s next.

There is certainly a place for beauty in your dashboard design.  As Chris G. notes in our frequently downloaded “Guide to Creating Dashboards People Love to Use”, “Modern web design has moved on to seek a union of utility, usability and beauty. We must find a similar union when displaying data in business.”  Note how beauty is equally partnered with utility and usability.  There should be a balance.

When designing reports or dashboards, strive for useful, helpful and understandable.  “Pretty” simply isn’t enough.