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50 Shades of Grey? The Use of Shades in Dashboards.


50 Shades of Grey? The book? Not quite – we’re talking about the use of shades in dashboards.

You’ve connected to your data, defined the key performance indicators you want to display, you may have even decided what visuals you want to use to display your data; now it’s time to start designing your dashboard.

There are a number of best practices to look at when designing a dashboard: data to ink ratio; using the appropriate visualization elements; labels, etc. Right now we’re going to focus on the use of color (or lack thereof) and shades, within a dashboard.

The example above is a modified version of a bullet graph sample from the blog Perceptual Edge. The sample makes excellent use of shades. Three shades of grey have been established to denote poor, average, and ideal ranges. In this example, light grey represents the ideal range, medium grey the average, and dark grey our poor/problem range. The grey shades are different enough from each other that we can clearly see the difference between them. While the use of five shades (three greys, black, and white) is ideal, there is the potential for confusion in this sample. You may notice that in two of the bullet graphs (expenses and defects), the shades go from light to dark rather than dark to light. This change may cause us to miss a problem at a glance.

One of the advantages for using shades (white, black, and greys) is that when color is added we notice it almost immediately. The potential confusion we face in this sample can be rectified easily by simply adding color in a couple of different ways. This helps to point out areas that require our attention.

In our example, the Average Order Size, and Defects require more attention:

Here colored indicators have been added to pull attention to the particular bullet graphs. We could have used a black indicator here instead; however, when the rest of the visuals are made up of shades, color is more immediately noticeable to the eye, so our brains spot the change that much faster. In western culture, red is a color we associate with warning, or stop. As this isn’t the case in all cultures, you must be careful when choosing a color.

An alternative to the colored indicator is simply changing the color of the bar. As mentioned earlier, one should always be cognizant about the data to ink ratio. As a dashboard should be able to fit on a single screen, you need to ensure you are using space as efficiently as possible. Indicators, while useful, also increase our ink without increasing the data. By only changing the color of the bar, we quickly draw the eye to the area that requires attention, without taking up any more space.

While we may have the desire to create a dashboard that echoes a corporate color scheme, or simply looks “pretty”, we should always ask ourselves, is the use of color adding informational value to my dashboard, or is it detracting from it? This isn’t to say that your dashboards have to be 50 shades of grey though. You can choose to have one dominant color and use variations of it to replace what would have been grey. In this case when you want to draw attention to a particular area you can use a contrasting color to it. This ensures our eye notices the difference as fast as possible.

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