1. The 5 Second Rule

Your dashboard should provide the relevant information in about 5 seconds.

Your dashboard should be able to answer your most frequently asked business questions at a glance. This means that if you’re scanning for the information for minutes, this could indicate a problem with your dashboard’s visual layout.

When designing a dashboard, try to follow the five-second rule – this is the amount of time you or the relevant stakeholder should need to find the information you’re looking for upon examining the dashboard. Of course, ad-hoc investigation will obviously take longer; but the most important metrics, the ones that are most frequently needed for the dashboard user during her workday, should immediately ‘pop’ from the screen.

2. Logical Layout: The Inverted Pyramid

Display the most significant insights on the top part of the dashboard, trends in the middle, and granular details in the bottom.

When designing a dashboard it’s important to follow some kind of organizing principle. One of the most useful ones is the inverted pyramid (see image). This concept originated from the world of journalism, and basically divides the contents of a news report into three, in order of diminishing significance: the most important and substantial information is at the top, followed by the significant details that help you understand the overview above them; and at the bottom you have general and background information, which will contain much more detail and allow the reader or viewer to dive deeper (think of the headline, subheading and body of a news story).

How does a journalistic technique relate to dashboard design? Well, business intelligence dashboards, like news items, are all about telling a story. The story your dashboard tells should follow the same internal logic: keep the most significant and high-level insights at the top, the trends, which give context to these insights, underneath them, and the higher-granularity details that you can then drill into and explore further – at the bottom.

Designing dashboards according to the inverted pyramid framework

3. Minimalism: Less is More

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

Some dashboard designers feel the need to cram as many details as possible into their dashboard in an effort to provide a fuller picture. While this might sound good in theory, cognitive psychology tells us that the human brain can only comprehend around 7+-2 in one time – and this is the amount of items you want in your dashboard. More than that just translates into clutter and visual noise that distracts and detracts from the dashboard’s intended purpose.

You can avoid visual clutter by layering the data by using filters and hierarchies (e.g. instead of having one indicator for amount of sales in North America and one for South America, give the user the option to apply a filter which changes the same indicator between one and the other) – or simply by breaking your dashboard into two or more separate dashboards.

4. Choosing the right data visualization

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

We’ve written before about ways to visualize data so won’t go into too much detail here – suffice to say that data visualization are intended to be more than mere eye candy – they should serve a specific purpose and convey specific facts in a more effective way than the basic tabular format.

Before choosing a visualization, consider which type of information you are trying to relay:

  • Relationship – connection between two or more variables.
  • Comparison – compare two or more variables side by side.
  • Composition – breaking data into separate components.
  • Distribution – range and grouping of values within data.


Last modified: June 25, 2019



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