The Language of Dashboard Icons

Dashboard applications, more so than any other business software, are visual in nature. The more the “at-a-glance” nature of the dashboard, the easier the users find it to use and understand. Above all else, a clear understanding of the business condition is the goal of the corporate dashboard.

Icons and other simple graphical representations are used extensively as shortcuts to explain the meaning of dashboard measures. Dashboard users often monitor their areas of interest by watching for changes in these simple visual indicators.

In the past, The Dashboard Spy has commented on the use of simple icons as replacements for language. Remember this graphic of various dashboard icons?

Dashboard Icon set

Simple to understand and easy to use, right? Just choose an icon, pop it onto your dashboard and you’ll get a usable and useful business dashboard. Sorry, it may not be that easy. When choosing icons and other graphics for your dashboard, you have to stop and make sure that the symbology is unmistakable and not subject to misinterpretation. We, as dashboard designers, must study and understand The Language of Dashboard Icons.

How does a designer develop the sense for whether their design can be universally understood? I often use the technique of finding and studying at length dashboards written in languages other than english. I ask myself whether I really understand what’s going on. After my analysis, I’ll find a native speaker and ask them to explain parts of the dashboard to me. Often, I’m surprised at what I misunderstood and realize that I had better be more open-minded in my own design.

Thanks to Ole Øverli, a Dashboard Spy reader from Norway, we have just such an exercise to lead you through.

Let’s focus on the use of arrows, often found in use on dashboards to indicate trends within the data. Take a look at this column of arrows:

Ok, so it’s obviously a series of arrows denoting a rising trend, right? Well, not so fast, look at this next column of arrows:

More Trend Arrows?

Wait a minute, why did they start pointing to the left? And there doesn’t seem to be a correlation with the numeric value next to the arrows? What’s going on? Well let’s look at the adjacent column:

Wind Direction arrows

Now, my norwegian isn’t what it should be, and yours probably isn’t much better, but we can all guess that “vind” means wind.

Ah, so our reliable dashboard icon for uptrend, flat trend and down trend can be tipped on it’s head and mean something else entirely, as in this case – direction. The point is to keep in mind that icons can mean different things.

Here’s a look at the whole dashboard itself. As our friend Ole, points out:

Hello from Norway !

Check this out:
This is the official weather report site for Norway. (meaning misty rain)

The arrows are as you guessed wind, showing direction and force (The header should have been marked N/S E/W though, North is 12’o clock I guess)

I particularly like the “time for time” section (hour by hour).

Norway Weather Dashboard

As Ole agreed with, the column of arrows I showed you was confusing. Ole states that it wasn’t properly labeled, but from my perspective as an english-only speaker, I wouldn’t have understood it anyway. I would still have thought “trend arrow” until I saw the left-pointing ones.

Hope you enjoyed this little game!

Tags: Dashboard Icon Language, Best practices of Business Dashboard Design, Icons and Graphics for Dashboards, Usability for Executive dashboards, The Language of Icons for Dashboards

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