Business dashboards that overuse or misuse
colors cause cognitive overload for users
who then take longer to make decisions.
BY PALASH BERA
BUSINESS DASHBOARDS HELP users visually identify
trends, patterns, and anomalies in order to make
1 Dashboards often use a variety of
colors to differentiate and identify objects.
using colors might improve visualization, overuse
or misuse can distract users and adversely affect
decision making. This article tests this effect with
the help of eye-tracking technology.
The bar charts in Figure 1 reflect sales of office-supply
products. The bars in the left-hand chart are uniform
in color, and the relative height is the only salient
information source. However, the chart
on the right uses a different color for
each bar, and the variation in both
height and color could be perceived as
different information. As a general prin-
ciple, color variation should reflect value
9 Use of colors can needlessly
attract viewers’ attention, causing them
to search for meaning that is not there.
Each dashboard in Figure 2 shows
the profits by market size for geographic regions, as well as by products. Although the two dashboards are exactly
the same in terms of content, they differ in the way color is used in the bars.
The dashboard in the upper panel uses
a blue palette that varies from zero saturation (white) to 100% saturation (deep
blue), whereas the dashboard in the
lower panel uses a palette that starts at
100% saturation (red), decreases to zero
saturation in the middle of the scale,
and then increases back to 100% saturation but in a green hue.
Contrasting colors attract viewers’ attention. If the contrasting colors are not
related to a viewer’s task, then their use
creates distraction; for example, the lower panel in Figure 2 uses two contrasting colors—dark red for less profit, dark
green for higher profit. A distraction occurs if the task the viewer is performing
does not focus on high or low profit; for
example, if the task is to identify what
product (such as coffee or tea) has the
smallest difference in profit between major and small markets, then the task requires focusing on only the bottom part
of the lower panel. However, contrasting
colors force the viewer to also look at the
contrasting areas, including the top part
˽ Overuse or misuse of colors in business
dashboards can distract users and have
adverse effects on decision making.
˽ Studying these effects with eye-tracking
technology shows colors do not per se
lead to poorer decision performance but
rather to longer time to make decisions.
˽ This research thus suggests dashboard
developers avoid the indiscriminate use
of colors in business dashboards.