Having just started yet another project that requires a data dashboard at its core, set me wondering why these graphical data representations are so popular and appealing to users.


The psychology

Pages of poorly presented, daunting and unintelligible content will trigger high levels of uncertainty and unawareness in users that in turn manifests discomfort and panic. Users will most commonly conquer a situation such as this by attempting to gain greater ‘control’ through learning and understanding, their panic levels being linked directly to the speed at which they can assess the situation.

Generally, on an evolutionary level under circumstances of panic such as this, our survival instincts kick in and our subconscious mind prepares us for danger based on our perceived level of ‘control’.

The result… fight or flight.


No, I’m not suggesting that we should expect to see hoards of users fleeing for their life, in blind panic, from screens of poorly presented data as they would a ferocious lion in the African savanna.

Our daily actions are based on our environment and the likeliness and seriousness of threats we face. However, that said, we should recognise that although users are likely to persevere, to some extent, with poorly presented data, their underlying uncertainty of the data will undoubtedly undermine their comprehension and level of engagement.

The effectiveness of the dashboard solution lies not only in the facilitating of rapid data absorption which sets the user at ease, but also in enabling data trends to be simply discovered, forecasted and preemptively acted upon.

Subconsciously, once users have been exposed to the ease and reassurance of data dashboards, they will actively seek them out in future data encounters.

LB dashboard UX Blog
Data dashboard solution developed by Dotlabel for Licence Bureau


Two such instances where the use of dashboarded data is popular in the everyday lives of a substantial number of users, and increasing daily, are in the budgeting of personal finances and tracking of personal fitness. Personal fitness use in particular highlights the rapid, innovative development of dashboarded data within the mobile/wearable sphere and the growing importance of device agnostic solutions.


The science

Another reason why users find comfort in data dashboards can be highlighted through understanding the human brain’s limitations of data retention within its short-term memory. In his article Short-Term Memory and Web Usability, Jakob Nielsen points out that when designing for brainpower limitations, it should be noted that ‘short-term memory holds only about 7 chunks of information, and these fade from the brain in about 20 seconds’. This observation is especially relevant in situations where users are trying to comprehend data. For example, it is easier to remember the trend of a line on a graph in comparison to a table full of values.


In practice

As designers, we use a number of key techniques in the construction of data dashboards. For example, to ensure a high level of engagement and rapid data absorption, the dashboard is structured so that the user is initially presented with an overview screen that provides a snapshot of key, critical data presented at summary level. The idea is that once the user has mentally identified which data groups are of interest, they will, at their leisure and in an order of their wishing, drill down into increasingly detailed data. The overview screen acts as their refuge, a familiar place to return to at anytime and start a new data journey. The key factor here is that the user has full control over which data is presented, at what level of detail and in which order.

Equally, due to the complex nature of large data models, as designers, we will strive to segment data into smaller digestible components and group related items together to reduce the cognitive load on users. Other considerations are the maximising of readability, the prioritised positioning of content within the layout, the use of graphics and icons to represent data types, and the use of Gestalt Laws (i.e. the laws of Prägnanz, Focal Point, Continuity, Similarity and Proximity, to name a few).


Final thoughts

So back to the task in hand… designing data dashboards is certainly challenging, but the task of producing tools that enable users to acquire an in-depth understanding of their data without overwhelming them makes the whole task both satisfying and worthwhile. Furthermore, the task can be simplified and its effectiveness assured when as designers we follow the established psychological insights and behavioral rules that have been developed through extensive user research.

As for the future, we are already seeing data visualisation solutions segmenting into applications designed to meet both desktop users and the ever increasing expectations of on-the-move users, and, excitingly, this trend is set to develop further; hopefully with even greater focus on creating the ultimate user experience.



If you have a project in mind that you think would benefit from a the inclusion of a data dashboard to improve the user’s experience then we would be happy to discuss it with you. Dotlabel have considerable experience developing complex data dashboards and user interfaces for businesses in a variety of market sectors, insurance and banking being the most prolific.


Mike Craddock
Lead UX Designer


Lion image is used with permission from Ron Reznick at www.digital-images.net with our thanks.