Live from DIG SOUTH: Designing for Effective Communication

By Heidi Smith | Apr 27, 2016
More Articles by Heidi

Daniel O’Sullivan and Patrick Nord of ArchetypeSC presented “Not Just a Pretty Face: Designing Dashboards for Effective Communication” at DIG SOUTH 2016. The session covered how applying a specific and purposeful design process will help you organize your information in the best way possible for a user to digest, while communicating your data as effectively as possible.

Big Data & Effectively Communicating It

Patrick opens the discussion to talk about numbers and big data. He loves it, but he consistently was hearing from people he worked with that all graphs and charts are “lies, damned lies and statistics.” So his colleagues care about numbers, but they don’t always believe numbers and think they can be misleading or manipulated – which is totally true!

Not only do you need to adopt the mentality to NOT make your data visualizations misleading (hello, integrity!), but you also need to make sure the math is right, whether you’re on the analytics or design side. One mistake and your client, direct reports, higher ups, etc. may never trust you again.

The solution? Apply user experience (UX) distilling process to your design process. Other applications include reporting and websites, but it could be used in other applications as well. Your goal with using UX distilling is to organize the information so it makes sense and is communicated in the best way possible.

5-Step Process of UX Distilling

Daniel OSullivan and Patrick Nord present at DIG SOUTH 2016Daniel discussed his five-step design process coined “UX distilling,” which can be applied to other applications in addition to design. He relates it to distilling because the process is like the fermentation process of bourbon – all distilling starts with hygiene and quality, how you prepare the grains and yeast is the science, and after that, you bottle it, mature it and filter and refine it. It becomes art. The process can be seen in much the same way.

Step 1: Identify Components

Figure out what you need in your design. Create “buckets” for all of your elements to go in. Some of the examples Daniel provided were metrics, navigation, and features.

Step 2: Gather Requirements

Take your different element buckets/sections and figure out what you want to be included in each of them. Essentially, drill down more granularly and further explore what each means to you and makes sense to include within it based on the user’s needs and goal of the dashboard.

  • Metrics Example:
    • Jobs completed year-to-date
    • Sales pipeline
  • Features Example
    • Activity feed
    • Search bar
    • Schedule
  • Navigation Example (he gave pretty specific examples)
    • Profile
    • Jobs
    • Permits
    • Contractors

It is good to think of positive elements if you can – you don’t want users logging in every day and associating your dashboard (or report, depending on the scenario) with negativity on what is overdue, projects not completed, etc. Using specific elements like “jobs completed year-to-date” or “revenue generated year-to-date” can be examples of positivism added to your project.

Step 3: Outline Your Design

Visualize how you want the design to be. Daniel suggested doing steps one and two on Post-it notes so that you can easily move them around when you are outlining your report/dashboard design. Some questions to ask yourself include:

  • Should you have a top or side navigation?
  • How do your elements fit together?
  • How should that be reflected in your design?
  • What is the order of elements?

Step 4: Mock Up

Use sticky notes of all your elements (metrics, navigation, features, etc.) to “build” your dashboard report or website on a whiteboard, and you can really get a sense of what your design will look like. Run it by your other design teams and really play with it to ensure it makes sense functionally and based on how the user will end up actually digesting it.

I loved a line Patrick said in this section about asking yourself “Is the information you are showing interesting or relevant?” at every stage of the process. I believe that is a mindset you can translate to so many areas of business, but reporting is one that comes to mind immediately. Give your client relevant information, don’t just add it in because it is “interesting.” It should have specific value or relevancy.

Step 5: Refine

Going in, you should have an idea of which tool and framework you are going to use. If you don’t know the framework, your design isn’t going to translate very well into the code. This may be the most important step, because it will probably continue as user need changes, business goals are updated, industry shifts, etc.

color theory explanation graphOther tips on refining your design:

  • Use proper color theory
  • Use proper iconography
  • Take it logically from one step to the next
  • Consider mobile versus desktop design as well
  • May need to make changes or adjustments based on user feedback
    • Example: changed a calendar view from just a day to offering day, week and month views


As you design, always keep functionality, speed and timeliness in mind. If you have immense amounts of interesting big data but it takes two hours to transform it or you create graphs from it that users don’t believe or understand, you’re not communicating your data correctly or in a way that will help you or your client. In this day and age, you need the big data visualizations almost instantaneous, and building a beautiful, functional and purposeful design for whatever project you’re working on can help you achieve those priorities more efficiently and make your data tell a more convincing story.

I’ll be reporting on DIG South this week, so find me on Twitter to get more insights and follow the action!

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