Three guidelines for designing data dashboard in news reports

Data dashboard in a news report needs to (a) focus on a clear message, (b) use charts that best communicate the message and (c) include annotations to help audience understand the dashboard.

I developed these guidelines from my own experience and from some recent readings, especially the book Communicating Data with Tableau by Ben Jones. While news editors can try these guidelines in developing a dashboard, journalism instructors can also adapt them into a course assignment.

Ben defines data dashboard as “a single display that combines multiple data visualizations, tables, text, and figures to give a multifaceted view of a subject.” And following some tips in his book, I put together a dashboard that explains the growth of mobile subscribers in China and India.

Take a look of the dashboard and then read on for the guidelines that went into the production of this dashboard.

Guideline #1: Focus on a clear message

Data dashboards in news stories usually serve an “explanatory” function, calling audience attention to specific facts in the data set or supplementing an argument in the story itself.

In reviewing the World Bank indicator data set, a U.S. reporter may notice that while in most countries, the growth of mobile subscribers has been steady, the numbers in China and Indian have been growing by leaps and bounds.

The reporter may develop a news story based on this observation, and in that story, the reporter may report the growth numbers and try to make sense of it by interviewing and quoting experts, industry leaders, policy makers and average people for topics such as why it grows so fast, how it impacts economies and societies in each country, how it will affect the U.S., etc.

And obviously, the above demo dashboard will be a good supplement to this news story, as it brings to life the focus of this story – the growth of mobile subscribers in China and India.

Guideline #2: Use charts that best convey the message

When designing the dashboard, the reporter may decide that there needs to be a chart showing ranking of countries, a chart showing the actual growth, and a map showing where China and India are.

As explained in “Which chart or graph is right for you?“, an introductory guide by Tableau, different charts are used for different visualization needs. For instance, a bar chart is best suited for comparing values, a line chart is best for showing trends over time, and obviously a map is best for showing geo-based data.

In fact, if you are not sure what chart to use, stick with the classic bar chart, line chart and map; they are the most commonly used ones and usually suffice to get a job done – as in the demo dashboard, which has a bar chart to show ranks, a composite line chart to show trends, and a map to show locations.

Guideline #3: Include annotations to help understanding

The attention span of news audience is short, and unless the news itself is compelling, we cannot expect an online reader to spend much time on a dashboard that does not provide much clue as to what it is and what to look at.

That’s why we need to include essential annotations in a dashboard, which, as suggested by Ben Jones, usually include the following elements:

  • A title
  • A lead-in paragraph or sentence
  • A data source call-out
  • A “created on” date
  • A “created by” name
  • Instructions on how to use the dashboard
  • Call-outs or notes about the data

Check the dashboard in this post again for the presence of these annotation elements. See, for instance, how the notes in the map and the trend views help call audience attention to the key message we want to communicate.

Additional guideline: Add interaction where appropriate

Usually, data visualizations, whether in the form of a single visualization or a dashboard, are static – the visualization is presented as a static image, such as this one:

data dashboard for news reporting

While this visualization serves the need of communicating a message and has all the essential annotations, a reader may desire to drill into the actual data set and find answers to additional questions that arise.

The demo dashboard in this post meets such needs by allowing a reader to examine data for individual or multiple countries of their interests. One thing to bear in mind when adding interaction: give instructions on how to use the interactive features.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (www.mulinblog.com/mooc), a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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