Not everyone has an opportunity to be on the first line and present data in front of the audience. Many are silent data heroes at the back of the stage. They constantly work with data to make sense of them and pass it on to others.
I know from my experience that in many organizations people work in silos, and it can be a tangible barrier in delivering well-designed, actionable dashboards. The best option to overcome this phenomenon is to make an effort and find end-users to gather their requirements and tailor reports for their specific needs. Only in this way you can find out what the true story should be built around a particular data set. The rest is a piece of cake.
Nevertheless, if you are one of that data heroes, to be honest, you are the true master here. You decide which data sets will be distributed within your organization and to what extent. So, you may not be presenting the results in front of the audience, but they are likely seeing them with your eyes.
However, it is a double-edged sword. Having great influence results in having huge responsibility. It is a challenge for every communicator, and you are a kind of communicator because you prepare and hand down information.
I will just present only a few which I find very useful, and I often use them in my work. These technics are easy to remember and easy to implement, so everyone can benefit from them. They have similar usage as linguistic construction which can influence you to buy or do something.
We will go through:
- Common region
Humans see colours, maybe not in such spectacular range like other animals (check this article about hummingbirds), but still it is one of the most important senses that helps us understand the world and allows us to run away from wild animals in the jungle.
When it comes to designing dashboards, use colours to lead the audience from point to point. It is important to use just several ones. There is a good rule of five. Take five colours, assign to them meaning as for example white – the main colour for background, grey – major of data in data visualization, dark blue – numbers, black – text and icons, and orange – focal points. You can extend orange to orange and green if you want to differentiate positive and negative results.
In such way, you use colours on purpose and teach the audience their role in conveying the message.
To illustrate that we can compare these two pictures. Both charts present the same information – sales of regions. But the chart on the left side doesn’t promote any region. We can see all of them equally. It just aggregates information and presents them on the graph. However, the chart on the right side emphasises one of the regions (yes, that chart is created for the north region manager) by making it orange ( the darkest colour) and the rest regions greyish and tells a story about this specific region performance. The rest of the regions give context to the story.
Due to that simple change, you draw attention to one region and force others to look at it closely with avoiding special interest in other regions.
SHAPE / SIZE
What else you can use to push some information in front of another? Humans can see easily changes in sizes or shapes, so why not to use it for our purpose? Especially when we remember about people who have some colour seeing difficulties. Size and shape are another visual channel which can be used to spotlight some data. Make it bigger, make it stronger.
When we change solid line of North to dashed one and thicken it, our brain processes information even faster than before, because we use three visual channels to code this information: colour, shape, and size.
Even when we take out colour and leave visualization black and white (which sometimes serves the best for better contrast), we can still achieve the same result.
Size cannot be introduced in all visualizations. Would be hard to do it with bar chart. But regarding shape it is much easier. You can use pattern to fill in North bar.
Size is essential for presenting numbers. Differing numbers sizes, we control which of them play the first fiddle and which ones are providing additional information. Shape can be manifested in font type or its boldness. But we must remember here about the parent rule of readability. There is a general rule that on dashboards we use sans serif fonts because they are without any additional decorations and work better for displaying on screens.
Unexpectedly, font types can evoke some emotions or can reflect word meaning in their look. It is especially handy when you are about to design infographics. See examples.
Do you know that people tend to group and interpret objects which are in the close or shared areas? This principle has even its own name as the Law of Common Region and was devised by Gestalt group in 1920s.
I’m a hard user of that techniques when it comes to design dashboards. A single piece of information itself has no impact, however, when you connect a few dots together, the message can be powerful. To make it happen, it is important to create a common area for these elements. We can do this by adding background or border and create visual boundaries.
Studies regarding how people view websites, commonly known as Eyetracking, are consistent in results. The area with the greatest attention is the top-left corner of the page follows by the top-right corner, then the down-left and the last one is the down-right corner (see image below).
Of course, that we can use it to support data storytelling! Just divide a dashboard area into four quadrants and follow these two simple rules:
- In 1&2 place information which you want to highlight as KPIs, the crucial changes in trends, threats and opportunities, and components which are essential to navigate on the dashboard. Do not forget about the title. Use the best practices of designing UX (check this link about best practices in UX and find out what we have in common with goldfish).
- In 3 & 4 are additional information that broadens perspectives or sheds another light on the already presenting data. At the bottom is the great place to place information about last data refresh, or report confidentiality.
Data storytelling is a mix of knowledge about data visual presentation, design and people perception. Having these components in place you are armed with a very powerful tool, which makes the audience listening to your voice…, even when this voice is behind dashboards that you deliver.