Friday, August 1, 2014

9 Tips for Visual Beauty in Dashboards, Reports and Charts

A colleague of mine put together some wonderful design tips for visualizing data, and because I have seen plenty of ugly reports and dashboards, I wanted to share his ideas.  Jacob Stark says:

As I have worked with customers on finding the best ways for them to visualize their data, 9 tips have proven invaluable in transforming ordinary reports and dashboards into powerful decision-making tools. 
Usually, the default dashboard or report looks something like this:

The customer has some great data and has put as much of it as possible onto the page.  The charts and graphs are using whatever default styles are available. 
1. Remove the “Chart Junk”
Upon first glance, the report is visually overwhelming.  To reduce the clutter, let us begin by removing the “chart junk”, extra pixels and lines unnecessary to the design.  By only removing the box outlines and extra gridlines, the report already looks cleaner.

2. Get Rid of the 3D!
People love the look of 3D pie charts, but they are extremely deceptive for visualizing data.  In the “Costs” 3D chart above, how easily can one tell if the 3rd or 4th quarter is larger?   It is especially difficult to tell when one piece of the pie is in the foreground and another piece is tilted towards the back. Whenever possible, avoid 3D.

3. Obscure the Unnecessary
Often, customers will want to include all of the wonderful data they have, trying to address the needs of anyone who may see their report or dashboard.  Unfortunately, this causes information overload.  We do not want to lose that valuable data, but we can obscure it so it does not overwhelm.  When designing a printable report, this could mean moving supporting data to a later section.  For a PowerPoint presentation, it could be moving data to backup slides.  For an online dashboard, this data could be revealed through a pop-up. 
For our example report, we’ve removed the customer complaint data.  When designing, ask yourself “what are the 3-5 most important pieces of information to show?”

4. Use the Proper Chart to Tell a Story
When looking at a chart or graph, I like to immediately understand a story.  Are things getting better?  Worse?  In our example, we see it is much more powerful to look at costs as a line graph than as a pie chart.  Now, we see a clear decline in costs, while with the pie chart is was difficult to know what the story was.  With sales, we’ve broken down the stacked bars and instead utilized side-by-side columns to make it easier to see the differences between months.  In some cases, a pictorial representation may not be needed at all.  For Goals, instead of showing a pie chart, we have reverted to the actual numbers.  Now, one can quickly be reminded of what their goal was and how they actually performed.

5. Think Big, Little, and Small
Not all data is equally important.  Use size to indicate which charts and graphs you wish to emphasize. In this example, we now know that costs are very important to our organization, followed, by our goals and actuals.  Another way to emphasize importance is through position, with the top-left corner usually being the most eye-catching position.

6. Focus on the Data
When looking at a chart or graph, it is important that our eye is drawn to the data and not the axis labels or other information.  Try using subdued colors and small font sizes on chart labels while increasing the width/size of the data itself.

7. Use Beautiful Colors
Color can be extremely difficult to work with.  There are a number of helpful websites, and one such is Adobe’s Kuler. As a reminder, it is always wise to avoid the color red unless you wish to call out an area of concern.

8. Set Goals and Indicators
We now have some clean, easy-to-read data, but it is still difficult to know how to feel about the data.  Yes, costs are decreasing, but should they have been even lower?  And did we meet our sales goals?  Exceed them?  By adding goal lines, it becomes much easier to see how well performance matches expectations.  We have also added conditional formatting to our “January New Customers”, turning the text red to indicate that we are currently far short of our goal.

9. Add Design Details
As a final touch, we add some lines and boxes to divide up the space. 

There are various ways we could continue to improve upon this design, but just by following these nine tips, we can already see a significant difference:

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