Using tables and grids is common when designing digital products and dashboards. Data tables help organize a bulk of information.
They present data in a more readable and understandable way. They also help to emphasize important data and improve data visualization.
Tables are often used as a UI component, yet many still make mistakes when designing data tables. Some table designs are full of visual noise or are too complex, resulting in a poor user experience.
Getting the right table UI design creates better data visualizations and comparisons. Designing tables the right way makes them attractive and enhances readability.
This guide shows how to optimize data table design and improve table functionality.
Designing Data Tables the Right Way
When planning a table design, there are two things to work on: the table style and the table functionality.
Aligning table data
To differentiate text from numerical data, align the text to the left and numbers to the right. Such alignment makes it easier to compare two different data.
Table headers should also align with their column data for a structured table design.
Some table cells may have multiple lines of text, such as descriptions. The vertical alignment for such content should be at the top.
Otherwise, the column data will not be aligned with each other.
Adding featured section
A featured section is a table column, row, or a cell that the author wants to emphasize. It is usually applied to pricing tables or when comparing subscription plans.
Use a featured section to highlight important information in the table. This could be the best value plan or a popular element among a list for example.
To create a featured section, change the formatting of the cells. For example, modify the fill color of the cell or the font size of the text to make it stand out.
A data table should not have too many colors. Use them only for table headers, negative and positive trends, and featured sections.
Adding too many colors creates visual noise. This makes it hard to distinguish elements that need to be highlighted.
Use darker shades of gray for font color, and lighter shades of gray for border color instead of the regular black color. Using softer shades of black makes it less intense, reducing eye strain.
Apply varying colors when differentiating categories or when emphasizing highest and lowest values. To emphasize certain sections in the table, use brighter or bolder fill colors to make them stand out.
Alternating row colors
Alternating row colors improves readability. It sets visual cues, helping people follow a list of information and connect data.
This is especially useful when creating a large database. It also works well for small data tables.
Create a ‘zebra stripes’ effect by alternating white fill color with a darker color such as light gray. If using other colors, use a light fill color and alternate it with a slightly darker shade.
Using monospaced font
For a more structured table design, use a monospaced font style for numerical data.
Tabular, or monospaced font, has a fixed width and spacing for every character. This improves typography and readability.
Examples of monospaced fonts include Courier, Courier New, Lucida Console, and Monaco.
To further improve symmetry, make sure to format digits in the same length, like dates for example. Instead of writing 15/3/2019, format the date as 15/03/2019.
Visualizing table data
Turn column data into horizontal bar charts. This helps to visualize data and generate an overview.
Horizontal bar charts allow users to compare data sets and interpret them with ease. Each bar sits in a column next to the data it represents, vertically aligned, and divided into rows.
Inserting a bar chart oftentimes expands the column too much. Thus, consider showing bars only for visualizing important values.
Another method to visualize table data is to use heatmaps.
Heatmaps adjust the color shade of the cell background or fill color based on the numerical value on the cell, creating a one color gradient. The higher the numerical value, the darker the fill color becomes.
Make it responsive
An effective data table works well on different devices. It must display data in a readable manner when opened on smartphones, tablets, and laptops.
Viewing tables on smaller screens requires a lot of changes in table design. A table design built on large desktops might not work on smaller devices.
Test out the table on mobile devices. Make sure that users can scan through information without having to scroll endlessly.
Beware of shrunk columns and hidden texts as these result in poor user experience.
Remember, on smaller screens, narrow columns are better. There are different ways to make the columns thinner.
This includes using icons, abbreviations, shorter number format, and rounded-off numerical data. So 2.5m rather than 2,500,000 and 0.3 rather than 0.3241.
Enable reordering of columns
Large data tables are sometimes hard to read due to their size and the amount of information they hold. Enabling users to reorder columns allows them to focus on the columns they need to read.
It also means they can do this without scrolling back and forth. This helps users minimize clutter, digest small pieces of information, and arrange the columns according to their needs.
Consider having a fixed row height
If the data table contains many columns, anchor the first few columns. This will keep the context while users scroll through the rest of the table.
Having customizable columns is highly recommended. But table rows must have a fixed height to maintain symmetry and avoid confusing the readers.
Regardless of the data, fixed row height improves table UI design and visuals.
Using pagination for long data tables
There is an unwritten rule that data tables should not be longer than a desktop screen. However, this is not possible if a data table is long.
Prevent long data tables from occupying a large portion of a web page and maximize white space. Do this by enabling the pagination feature.
This also serves to guide readers through the table and help them navigate.
When using pagination, include the page number to show how many pages there are and what page the readers are on. Moreover, to provide users with more control, allow them to customize how many rows to view per page.
Include table sort feature
Allowing users to have more control over the data table enhances table UI design. If the table contains a lot of information, one way to help readers locate the data they need is to add a sort feature.
Sorting enables users to arrange the data according to specific logical orders.
This can be alphabetical, date and time modified, ascending, descending, and more. The more options, the better.
Another way to sort data is to include a search field. This allows readers to search for specific data such as the name of a company, location, products, and more.
Filtering data is another way of increasing the functionality of a data table. Users can digest large amounts of data, understand trends, and create comparisons.
They can also locate certain information and analyze complex data. This is especially so for numerical data tables.
Make sure users can customize parameters or filter sets for certain columns. Also, include an advanced filtering option to save the filter set they created for future use.
Maintain context, use fixed headers and frozen columns
Reading through a large data table requires lots of vertical and horizontal scrolling. To maintain context, anchor column headers as well as the first column or first few columns.
Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets refer to anchored columns as “frozen”.
For easier table navigation, add a full row selection. This allows users to mark important rows as they scroll horizontally.
This can be tricky if the table has expandable rows and might result in a different effect.
Final thoughts on how to design a table the right way
Knowing what to consider when creating a table UI design leads to effective tables. These allow users to compare data and sort information, and also increases readability.
Learning how to design a table enables designers to reduce visual noise and make good use of white space. The design tips provided here can optimize table design and user data.
Following these tips will improve the overall table style and functionality. Further, they help to improve user experience and brand image.
If you enjoyed reading this article on how to design a table, you should check out this one about how to make a data table.