Something that has always fascinated me is the collective vision for the future – not so much in the sense of tools or technology, but the design of those things that do not yet exist in the human world. Think of movies like Oblivion and Star Wars, and television shows like The Jetsons and Star Trek. Each of them is full of control panels, dashboards, deploy buttons, and so on – all of which are designed using non-existent data. It’s exciting to me – I’m an analytical person with a passion for numbers and experimental design. You’re in charge with no rules or restrictions. You’re designing for the future!
But some of us aren’t lucky enough to have that power. We have real clients with real data and we need to design a real-life, functioning solution. Designing the look and feel of the user interface might be easy – it’s really no different than designing for the web, right? Yet, somehow the challenge of organizing real data and information seems so difficult and complex that even the best designers struggle with it. Relax and try not to get ahead of yourself. Designing for data is like any project large or small, and it’s always important to start from the beginning.
1. Start With What You Know
The key to every successful project is starting with what you know. Identify who your audience is. Are you displaying data for an engineer? A pilot? A department store clerk who is trying to file their taxes? By understanding both your audience and your content, you can make sure your project stays on track. Identify your end goal at the beginning of the project and evaluate your progress often. Stay focused and keep your end user in mind.
2. Ask Questions & Take Notes
Data can often be complicated and confusing. If you need clarification on what something is, means or does, just ask! The more you understand your content, the fewer headaches you’ll have later. You may not be an expert in the particular field of data, but learning how to organize it up front will only benefit you.
3. Own the Basics
Most designers know the basic principles of design. They’re not suggestions or advice, they’re rules. Having to display a lot of data and content can be overwhelming, but you should never disregard the basics. Whitespace, hierarchy and contrast are crucial in every design project. Focus on creating a structured hierarchy throughout the project. This will allow users to digest the most important information first and will visually lead them through the space. Another way to easily guide users through complex data is using proximity. Group similar things together and create clear divisions between similar and dissimilar groups. Start with a foundational grid to make the design process cleaner, quicker and easier.
4. Show Don’t Tell
No, I didn’t come up with this one myself; however, it’s crucial in the construction of data design. When there is a lot of data to digest in one space, your users need to be able to quickly decipher the information they want vs. the information they don’t want. Using lengthy sentences and paragraphs will only complicate things. Place design emphasis on the visuals. Charts, infographics, icons, etc. are all simple solutions. Be sure to focus on clarity and find a balance with visuals. Overcomplicating and making your users guess can be just as harmful as providing too little information.
5. The Details Make It
The difference between a great design and a good design is attention to detail. Charles Eames once said, “The details are not the details. They make the design.” Don’t fall short of a great design – focus on all parts large and small and pay close attention to even the finest details. You’ll not only build credibility and loyalty with users but also assure them the project or data is displayed accurately and precisely.
You already have the skills and toolset to make a great design. It’s now about honing in on your patience and process to get the job done. It’s never a good idea to rush into a design solution. Just remember, start with what you know and take each step at a time.