April 11

Confessions of a Dashboard Designer: How to Avoid Ugly Data Visualizations


Working with the Business Intelligence pros in the Reddit subreddit to create the infamous dashboard was a source of amusement and a lesson in what to avoid when designing dashboards. In this article, I will use those worst practices as a foundation and discuss approaches that make for valuable dashboards.

I wrote a post about the whole process that you can get up to speed with: I Tried My Hand at Designing the Worst Dashboard I Could Imagine.

The dangers of ugly dashboards, while we can joke about them, do have serious implications for the business. Without a well-designed dashboard, data can be misconstrued or overlooked, leading to poor business decisions. In this article, we'll explore some tips for avoiding dashboard disasters and creating effective visualizations. From layout to color scheme to data types, we'll cover it all. So buckle up and get ready to transform your dashboards from scary to stunning!

By applying the approaches in this article, the shame of humankind that was this dashboard transforms into something people can take action on and enjoy using as it provides value, rather than trying to avert their eyes and manage the visual chaos.

Common mistakes in dashboard design

Effective dashboard design begins long before any visuals are produced. Poorly-crafted dashboards are often the product of neglecting to involve the intended users throughout the design process.

1: Not focusing on value and business outcomes

Design dashboards with clear, business-oriented outcomes in mind. Aesthetic appeal is important, but the dashboard must drive meaningful actions and decisions to be effective. Understand the role and motivations of the intended audience to determine what decision the dashboard can support.

2: Not engaging users in a design-thinking process or involving them in wireframing

Successful dashboard design requires user engagement from the outset. Failing to involve users in a design-thinking process or wireframing can lead to a dashboard that does not address user needs and pain points.

3: Overcrowding and clutter

Dashboards often become cluttered when too much information is included, making it difficult for users to discern the key insights. This overwhelm can cause users to lose focus and disconnect from the dashboard.

4: Poor color choices and contrasts

Color is both beneficial and detrimental to dashboard design. Incorrect color choices or clashing elements can confound users and reduce clarity. In the example, orange, the brand color, is used improperly. This divides user focus, diminishing the dashboard's potency.

5: Inappropriate chart types

Incorrect chart selection can cause misinterpretation and confusion. For example, pie charts don't sufficiently illustrate trends in time-series data, while horizontal bar charts fail to provide a sorted timeline that can inform accurate conclusions.

6: Lack of hierarchy and focus

A well-structured dashboard should prioritize key information to help users quickly identify and access the data they need. Poorly designed dashboards, such as the one displayed, make it difficult for users to discern which data is most relevant as the layout lacks order.

7: Ignoring user needs and preferences

Dashboard designers often neglect to consider user needs and preferences when creating visualizations. This does not refer to business or functional requirements, but rather how users prefer to view dashboards, on which devices and at which resolutions.

Case Study

Best practices for avoiding ugly dashboards

Crafting a dashboard that meets both the needs of the business and is visually pleasing requires an important balance of best practices for data visualization and dashboard adoption.

1: Focusing on value and business outcomes

Design your dashboard with the desired outcome in mind. Make sure that the visualizations and layout are tailored to meet the business objectives.

2: Engaging users in a design-thinking process and involving them in wireframing

Incorporate user input and feedback in the design process by conducting user interviews, involving them in wireframing, and iterating based on their feedback. This will help create a dashboard that is tailored to the user's needs and expectations.

Focused Practice Time

3: Conduct user interviews

Connect with your users to understand their needs, wants and issues. Use this knowledge to design a dashboard that meets their needs.

4: Run design and requirements workshops

Hold collaborative workshops with your users to create dashboard requirements and design solutions together. This strategy can guarantee the finished design meets users' needs and expectations.

5: Use low-tech wireframing

High-tech data solutions, like AI, are enticing and valuable, but low-tech methods, like sketching or basic digital tools, can help quickly prototype and revise dashboards. This lowers the perceived technical entry-point, enabling ideas to be tested and optimized before committing to a more detailed, high-fidelity prototype.

Wireframe WITH Your Stakeholders

The Dashboard Wireframe Kit makes is fast and easy to collaborate with your stakeholders to design dashboards that focus on business value and drive action.

6: Keeping it simple and clean

Dashboard design should be kept simple to maximize user enjoyment. Minimize clutter and emphasize key metrics for a clear, uncomplicated dashboard.

7: Using a consistent color palette

Choose a color palette that is not only visually appealing but also functional. Stick to a limited set of colors and use them consistently throughout the dashboard to create a harmonious and cohesive look.

8: Choosing the right chart types for the data

Choose chart types that best articulate the data and make it simple for users to comprehend the information. Become familiar with different chart types and their corresponding use cases to ensure an informed decision for your data.

9: Establishing a clear hierarchy and focus

Establish a visual hierarchy by using size, color and placement to guide the user's attention to the most important information. Make sure the key information stands out and can be accessed without difficulty.


To create a dashboard that is both visually appealing and effective, focus on delivering value to the user, keep them central to the design process, and continually update based on feedback. By avoiding common design mistakes and utilizing best practices, a dashboard can be created that is not only aesthetically pleasing but a powerful tool for the organization.

The end result of applying all these steps can be seen below.

Example of a high-fidelity dashboard wireframe
Nicholas Kelly


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