Top 10 things to keep in mind for making good looking reports and dashboards

Posted on 10 Jan 2014 in   Data Visualization, Information

1. Use WHITE for your Dashboard Background

When we ran a survey (sample size of 630 prospects who use reporting tools on a daily basis) , we found that 73% percent of the people wanted a white background when they were looking at reports on their desktops. 56% preferred darker backgrounds on mobile devices and tablets. When we asked questions around branding and if they preferred different backgrounds based on branding 58% still said they prefer keeping a white background because they wanted their companies logo to be put on top of their dashboards and they wanted that to stand out.

2. Highlighting values

A dashboard’s main goal is to highlight key numbers.  So as part of the information design phase the top charts have to be aligned on the top of the chart. It could be for example the Weekly rise or drop of certain metrics ( Sales, Inventory count etc).  For sales you just need a number and that is the key thing which is required. For bar charts, you need the top most number (90% of the time) and sometimes you just want to see the top 5, top 10 values for a set of data points. Out of range numbers need to be displayed in an alert color. These are useful for KPI reports.

3. Limited use of Bold, Italic and try NOT to use Underline Fonts

As part of the information dashboard design, you have probably sorted the charts or infographic elements the way you want to see it. Then there is no need to further add emphasis to your chart titles or the text. If you wanted to grab attention to your information the way you organize them on your dashboard is more important than actually highlighting the text associated with the charts. But if there is key datapoint out of many “boldifying” it might actually make sense. Use fonts consistently across your reports.

4. Use a GRID Layout

There are “highlight” type charts where usually it just shows a number and possibly a trend indicator. This kind of chart usually doesn’t take up much space and you can possibly stack together multiple of these in one row.  So the key thing is to have support for multiple-columns in a multi-row dashboard. If you have a detailed row view (grid) in your report, the ideal width should be such that the most of the data including the column headers can be read without resizing the grid. Here is an example of a GRID layout building block you can use for your report.

5. Use a Light color palette

Surprisingly, there is no clear winner in terms of which universal palette to use. The choice of palette depends a lot on the context.

Using lighter shades seems to be what most users prefer. But then when users want to take printouts, the preference is darker shades of the same color.

For  line graphs for example,  the line preferences are that they should  be relatively thin and darker colors like maroon or navy blue with as much contrast as you can have. Almost every user wants borders and labels in either in grey or black.

6. Be lavish with space. There is no need to cram information.

This is a no-brainer.  For the information to look elegant there needs to enough whitespace or space for that matter depending on your background. The places where you don’t want too much whitespace is when you have a grid view. For a grid view, the closer you can get the columns together, (keeping in mind that the column headers have to be legible) the better.

7. Avoid Graphical Decorations

Unless you are an UI expert , don’t go down the path of making your reports or dashboards look unprofessional by adding in images or pictures.  If you want to add pictures, go get a scrapbook or use power point!.

8. Mix up boring charts with infographic elements

Like I mentioned earlier, it is always good to get the key charts on the top of your dashboard. But if you can spice it up with an infographic element that is defintitely going to catch the eye of the business user.  One Infographic element which has worked for us is the past is the Fire Icon beside issues and Classification type infographics , for example : Private, Public for company type infographics.

9.  Use  Stacked layout charts and complicated charts at the top of the report.  And yes, don’t use more than one ‘complicated chart’ per report.

If you want to include horizontal stacked layout charts and the data is reasonably important what we have found out is that this takes the most of amount of time for a report user to analyze and understand versus the simple charts. If you don’t want them to just glance over the report chart because it looks more ‘complicated’ than the rest of the charts then  make sure that they are on top of your report.

10.  Describe contextual information in WORDS.

Words are usually underrated in a report. But if you want to give information which is contextual and not available in the report then there is no other choice other than describing the context. Like for example “this report was generated for department X only for selected Categories Y and Z and contains data till lend of last week”.