Dashboard Design: How to Master Subtractive Problem Solving

By: Zac Heacker | August 23rd, 2022
When I was a kid, I learned how to ride a bicycle by using training wheels.

These little additions to a normal bicycle prevent the bike from falling over while a child learns to pedal and steer. Or at least they’re supposed to keep the bike upright. I still have a scar on my knee that proves they didn’t always work.

In recent years, a new kind of training bicycle has grown in popularity: the pedal-less balance bike. These are smaller versions of standard bicycles that have no pedals at all, and no training wheels. Instead, kids can reach the ground and walk their feet on either side of the bike. This allows them to develop a feel for how the bike glides over the ground, while simultaneously building their balancing and steering skills.

subtractive problem solving

The popularity and success of this new training bike can teach us an important lesson about the design process: sometimes solving a problem requires some simple subtraction.

Going in the Opposite Direction

The human brain loves to add stuff to solve a problem. When we needed to teach children to ride bicycles, we decided to add training wheels to a regular bike. And current research indicates that people take this approach almost universally. When asked to edit an image and make it symmetrical, people are significantly more likely to add ink to the image than they are to remove ink. Even though both methods would result in a symmetrical picture, additive problem solving seems to be our default.

But what does this mean for data visualization and dashboard design? To find out, let’s consider a simple scatterplot.

subtractive problem solving

We can see that one of these data points is different than the others. It’s bright orange. But why exactly has that one been color coded differently?

It’s because the orange data point has a negative profit value, and we want to call attention to the loss. But even though that data point is below the zero line on the profit axis, it might be difficult to see that immediately due to all the other gray, horizontal gridlines on the background of the chart.

When I talk to clients about how they would solve this problem, they always decide that the zero line needs more emphasis, and so they always suggest that we take an approach like this:

subtractive problem solving

It makes sense, right? The zero line needed emphasis, and so we emphasized it by making that line thicker and darker than the other gridlines. We solved the problem, but notice that we defaulted to an additive solution.

But if we embrace the concept of subtractive problem solving, we can perhaps resolve this in a more elegant way. What if we simply removed the lines that are causing the distraction in the first place?

subtractive problem solving

This has the same effect! Removing all the unnecessary gridlines from the view allows us to focus more easily on the one line that we really care about: the zero line. And this method has the added benefit of scaling well. When each element of a dashboard contains fewer visual distractions, then the entire dashboard becomes less messy and much easier to interpret.

Less is More

We’ve all heard that “less is more,” but it’s not always easy to implement subtractive problem solving in our design process. When you sit down to create a visualization or a dashboard, think critically about every step in the process. Ask yourself if that step is going to add stuff to your chart, or subtract stuff, and try to avoid adding things at all costs.

Over time, subtractive problem solving can become our new default mode of operation, and this can result in cleaner, simpler dashboards that help us focus on our analytical goals, rather than constantly distract us with unnecessary information.

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