12 Golden Rules of Data Visualization

by Taymour | June 29, 2022

Dashboards are data visualizations that provide a quick and easy way to see how your business is doing. Unlike rows and rows of uninteresting data, they can help you quickly spot trends, track progress, and identify areas that need improvement. Dashboards are also a great way to share information with your team or clients. By displaying data in an easy-to-understand format, insights gleaned from well-designed dashboards can help you make strategic decisions and take meaningful action. If you’re not using dashboards, you’re missing out on a valuable tool for running your business.

To make awesome digital dashboards that get used, it is important to first understand what makes a great dashboard. At newData we have identified 12 Golden Rules of Data Visualization:

  1. Define your target audience. The target audience for a dashboard depends on the specific goal or needs of the user. To create an effective dashboard, consider who will be using it and what information they need to glean from it. Executive dashboards are typically high-level summaries, while dashboards designed for managers tend to be deeper dives into the data.
  2. Clarify the purpose. The most important information you are trying to convey should jump out on a dashboard, much like a topic sentence in a paragraph. It should be easy to scan so that users can quickly find the information they’re looking for. For example, if the goal is to track corporate productivity, then the dashboard may include a larger graph that highlights the company's overall productivity over time.
  3. Provide supporting detail. Every element on the dashboard should support the main purpose. In our corporate productivity example, secondary or supportive information, such as a particular team's or individual's specific performance, can be shown in smaller graphs beneath the main graph.
  4. Make it timely. Data inputs for a dashboard should be updated regularly to ensure that it is always relevant. For example, if the dashboard tracks sales data, then it should be updated daily or weekly to reflect the latest numbers.
  5. Keep data visualizations simple. Too many or over-complicated visualizations can make pretty pictures but can be overwhelming, making it difficult for users to find what they’re looking for. Any visual should be understood by the target audience within just a few seconds. Studies have shown that, in this digital age, most of us only have an 8-second attention span (and I would argue that most executives have even less than that!). Users don't care how brilliant the designer is. The less complicated the explanation, the more likely it is that others will find it helpful.
  6. Choose appropriate dashboard elements. Charts and graphs are intended for different purposes. For example, if the purpose of a dashboard is to track website traffic, then it may include both a line graph of visitors over time and a pie chart that breaks down where the traffic is coming from. But choose graphs and charts carefully. Pie charts can get confusing if there are too many data points, and line graphs can be difficult to interpret if the data is too granular.
  7. Limit interactivity: While it may be tempting to make dashboard visualizations interactive, it is important to limit interactivity to only those elements that are absolutely necessary. Too much interactivity can be confusing and make the dashboard difficult to use.
  8. Make it visually appealing. A dashboard should be easy on the eyes so that users will actually want to use it. Keep graphs and charts in roughly the same place on each page, and make them a similar size and shape. Choose a simple color scheme and stick with it. It's important to use visually appealing colors that help to convey the key insights from the data. (See our tips at the end of this post for choosing the right colors such as complementary, analogous, triadic, tetradic, or monochromatic color schemes.)
  9. Simplify the numbers. When displaying numbers on a dashboard, it is important to show users what's most relevant, not the less important intricate detail. This will make it easier for the target audience to quickly understand and remember what's important. For example, numbers should typically be rounded to the nearest whole number. Decimals should only be displayed if significant digits facilitate the interpretation of the data.
  10. Maintain consistency. Consistency across dashboard elements makes it much easier for users to quickly interpret and compare data. Maintain consistency in the way insights are presented and summarized, such as the information that is displayed on a chart's X and Y axes, the units of measurement, labels, and even formatting, such as text size and font.
  11. Provide context. Dashboard contents should be relevant to the narrative being told. Each chart or insight should have a purpose that supports a cohesive message. For example, simply showing this year's sales as $20,000 has no context. Have sales increased or decreased? To provide context, a line chart that shows sales over time would give users a sense of whether $20,000 in sales is good or bad.
  12. Measure your results. Always test your dashboard with the target audience before you launch it. This will help ensure that the dashboard is meeting the needs of the user.

In general, a good dashboard provides easy access to data and meaningful insights that simply are not possible with spreadsheets. It simplifies complex information and expresses the meaning of the data. It provides an intuitive user interface. Is customized and personalized. What type of dashboard would be meaningful to your stakeholders? If you’re not sure, ask them! Your stakeholders probably have a good idea of what they need from your data reporting in order to make informed decisions. Once you know what they need, it’s time to get started on designing that perfect dashboard for your business or organization.

APPENDIX - Color Selection Tips

Complementary colors: Complementary colors are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. This means that they will create a visual contrast that is visually appealing. Some examples of complementary colors are blue and orange, green and red, and purple and yellow.

Analogous colors: Blue-green is a combination of colors that sit next to one another and represent a piece of the color wheel. Consider hues of red, pink, and purple; or a collection of bright blues, greens, and turquoise. Because they are closely related, they tend to produce an overly uniform or monochromatic appearance. The majority of people, when they are choosing wall colors for their homes, opt to use analogous color schemes because they appear balanced, serene, and neutral. Similarly, these are the most natural-looking color schemes that we encounter in nature. The famous monochromatic design is a combination of blues - which we connect with water.

Tetradic or Monochromatic Colors: A tetradic color scheme, which is a variation of the twin color method in which all colors are equidistant from one another. All four hues are equally distributed around the color wheel, ensuring that no single hue has a stranglehold on the design. Because it makes use of four colors, organized into two complementary color pairs, the tetradic (double complementary) plan is the most sophisticated. Tetrad is a very demanding color scheme, needing careful planning and a passionate approach to interactions involving these hues. The scheme is difficult to match; if all four hues are used in equal measures, the design may appear uneven, therefore choose a color to be dominant or overpower the others.