Excel Dashboard Design Principle — Keep It Simple

By Michael Alexander

Dashboard design expert Stephen Few has the mantra, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” The basic idea is that dashboards cluttered with too many measures or too much eye candy can dilute the significant information you’re trying to present. How many times has someone told you that your reports look “busy”? In essence, this complaint means that too much is going on in the page or screen, making it hard to see the actual data.

Here are a few actions you can take to ensure simpler and more effective dashboard designs.

Don’t turn your dashboard into a data repository

Admit it. You include as much information in a report as possible, primarily to avoid being asked for additional information. But in the dashboard state of mind, you have to fight the urge to force every piece of data available onto your dashboards.

Overwhelming users with too much data can cause them to lose sight of the primary goal of the dashboard and focus on inconsequential data. The measures used on a dashboard should support the initial purpose of that dashboard. Avoid the urge to fill white space for the sake of symmetry and appearances. Don’t include nice-to-know data just because the data is available. If the data doesn’t support the core purpose of the dashboard, leave it out.

Avoid the fancy formatting

The key to communicating effectively with your dashboards is to present your data as simply as possible. There’s no need to wrap it in eye candy to make it more interesting. It’s okay to have a dashboard with little to no color or formatting. You’ll find that the lack of fancy formatting only serves to call attention to the actual data. Focus on the data and not the shiny happy graphics. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Avoid using colors or background fills to partition your dashboards. Colors, in general, should be used sparingly, reserved for providing information about key data points. For example, assigning the colors red, yellow, and green to measures traditionally indicates performance level. Adding these colors to other sections of your dashboard only serves to distract your audience.

  • De-emphasize borders, backgrounds, and other elements that define dashboard areas. Try to use the natural white space between components to partition the dashboard. If borders are necessary, format them to hues lighter than the ones you’ve used for your data. Light grays are typically ideal for borders. The idea is to indicate sections without distracting from the information displayed.

  • Avoid applying fancy effects such as gradients, pattern fills, shadows, glows, soft edges, and other formatting. Excel makes it easy to apply effects that make everything look shiny, glittery, and generally happy. Although these formatting features make for great marketing tools, they don’t do your reporting mechanisms any favors.

  • Don’t try to enhance your dashboards with clip art or pictures. They not only do nothing to further data presentation, but they also often just look tacky.

Limit each dashboard to one printable page

Dashboards, in general, should provide at-a-glance views into key measures relevant to particular objectives or business processes. This implies that all the data is immediately viewable on the one page. Although including all your data on one page isn’t always the easiest thing to do, there’s much benefit to being able to see everything on one page or screen.

You can compare sections more easily, you can process cause-and-effect relationships more effectively, and you rely less on short-term memory. When a user has to scroll left, right, or down, these benefits are diminished. Furthermore, users tend to believe that when information is placed out of normal view (areas that require scrolling), it’s somehow less important.

But what if you can’t fit all the data on one sheet? First, review the measures on your dashboard and determine whether they really need to be there. Next, format your dashboard to use less space (format fonts, reduce white space, and adjust column and row widths). Finally, try adding interactivity to your dashboard, allowing users to dynamically change views to show only those measures that are relevant to them.