Developing an admin panel is a unique software design challenge. Businesses often regard it as a secondary consideration because it’s not meant for end-users.
However, giving your platform administrators the right tools is a critical lever in delivering a seamless user experience for your customers.
A well thought-through admin panel design can empower your admins working behind the scenes to make decisions that significantly contribute to your business objectives. These shouldn’t simply be back-office tools handed to a back-office team. With the proper technology to do their work, they have the power to delight customers, extract strategic and financial insights, safeguard user data and privacy, and many other benefits that deliver business value.
In this guide, we offer some tips, tools, and techniques in designing admin panels. For those who are just getting started, this guide first presents the basic purpose of any given admin or control panel. Then, to help you understand the process of building one, we look at specific tools and techniques in an admin panel’s development journey. Lastly, we briefly identify the qualities of a good admin panel design.
What’s the purpose of the admin panel?
An admin panel enables administrators of an application, website, or IT system to manage its configurations, settings, content, and features and carry out oversight functions critical to the business. It allows them to view the state of the platform and take any action in the performance of their duties. In addition to technical and administrative tasks, admin panels also allow their users to handle business-related functions such as monitoring customer accounts, solving user problems, and processing their transactions.
Firstly, admin panel and dashboards display all the data and information that the system was programmed to collect and organize. This might include the technical status of the platform, details about customer and user profiles , the status of business operations, and many other informational aspects of the system.
These may be presented and aggregated in the form of an admin dashboard and analytics or through various levels of granularity in the form of reports. Some admin panels may offer admin dashboard templates to make life a bit easier for admins.
A good admin panel design also empowers administrators in taking business-critical actions, not merely in consuming information. One of its most critical functions relates to managing the users of the platform and providing them with a positive and high quality experience.
Here are some of the most common capabilities of an admin panel when it comes to user management:
- Approve (or reject) new users and manage their profiles
- Process their activities or transactions (e.g. applications, purchases, queries) if manual action is required from administrators
- Take interventions when users aren’t complying with the platform’s policies (e.g. suspending privileges, blocking accounts)
- Engage and communicate with users such as pushing out notifications and messages, promoting products and deals, sending out customer surveys, etc.
Aside from information and user management, here are the other key features commonly found in admin panels:
- Management of products, workflows, forms, and other core processes that deal with the very purpose of the app (e.g. order management for eCommerce platforms; form-builder for data collection apps)
- Content management (e.g. edit website pages, post articles, links and navigation between pages)
- Integration with other systems and third-party services
- Audit log, security, and permissions
The presence of all these capabilities depends on the nature and complexity of the system and dashboard design and the very tools and technologies that power them.
For example, organizations or individuals that only present text-based and simple media on their website are likely to be familiar with content management systems (CMS) such as Wordpress, Wix, and other similar alternatives, wherein their admin or control panels are already ready-made and don't require additional web development.
This also applies to small and medium-sized retailers that use Shopify, WooCommerce, and other online retailing platforms, wherein these merchants manage their products and users from default, off-the-shelf admin panels. However, the admin panels for eCommerce giants such as Amazon, Walmart, and eBay likely look different and offer its functionalities and many features tailored to their respective requirements.
For instance, user management for shoppers and merchant-sellers for these retail giants have been separated from their control panels due to the sheer volume of users and unique business processes they’ve built over time.
This is why an admin panel design for highly specialized apps, platforms, and systems, regardless of the company’s size or nature, requires careful attention. Even if your customers won’t be directly using them, they benefit by having an empowered team of admins, working behind the scenes, with dashboard panels, templates, plugins and all sorts of features that streamline customer experience as the result.
Tools and techniques for designing admin panels
Custom admin panel design and development share some similarities with designing consumer and enterprise applications. One unique consideration is that administrators are typically technically knowledgeable and capable. You’re designing a product for a small number of users who probably know their way around enterprise applications.
They also know a lot about your business processes and workflows — probably more than the average employee at your company. Nevertheless, one shouldn’t rely too much on assumptions about your users, even about your veteran admins.
Therefore, when designing admin panels created to match your business needs, it’s an imperative to be exhaustive and thorough. To help break down the development journey, consider this process: Discover, Define, Design, and Validate. There are several techniques and tools for each phase that you can use to produce an admin panel that empowers your administrators to be effective at their job.
1. Discover: Understanding the admins as users
When developing (or redeveloping) an admin panel, you need to make an effort to further understand your users — the administrators — and how they perform their work. When building software or information systems, user experience for the admins is often overlooked because product teams focus on end-users, the customers.
The discovery process for administrators should primarily deal with typical workflows and use cases. Probe further on the features, functionalities, methods, and processes that they find either as helpful or problematic. In addition, don’t just rely on the admin panel functionalities they know and have been used to. Look out for trends and innovative products that can further optimize the work of platform administrators.
To do these, here are a few concrete tools and techniques for a discovery process when designing an admin panel.
- Desk research: Also known as secondary research, this is the process of gathering existing findings, studies, and other pertinent information for a new project. When designing admin panels (or any other type of digital products), desk research helps in discovering industry trends and inspiring the next course of action. For example, if an enterprise tech company has already ran a user research study specific to admin panels and the typical behavior of administrators, learn from it and evaluate whether this can sharpen your own user research.
- Shadowing: This is a qualitative research method whereby the researcher accompanies the user in their natural environment (hence, called shadowing) and observes them how they use or interact with the product. As an ethnographic approach, product teams observe users first-hand or face-to-face, which can reveal behavior and insights you wouldn't have discovered if not for witnessing it in-person.
Unless the admin panel you’re working on requires to be operated by a lot of administrators, shadowing a small sample size of around five (5) users is sufficient. Select them carefully and make sure they’ll be the likely users of the admin panel or that they have enough experience in having used similar platforms before.
However, you shouldn't take the results of shadowing at face value or deem them as representative without context or additional information. You can deploy shadowing as part of a mixed-method research approach wherein you also conduct quantitative research methods such as a survey.
Ultimately, the value of user shadowing is being able to observe users what they actually do, rather than what they say they do.
- In-depth interviews (IDI) or user interviews: In the context of UX research, this is where a product team asks individual users about what they think of a particular digital product. This should be done before designing the product, as part of usability tests, or even when the product is already live. Effective user interviews are typically semi-structured. While it’s guided by a set of prepared questions, the interviewer should be able to follow up and probe on interesting or significant statements, especially on specific features, functionalities, or workflows that should be provided by the dashboard design.
- Benchmarking: When it comes to product development and management, benchmarking refers to assessing a product’s performance and qualities (which includes user experience) against a given standard (i.e. a benchmark) using meaningful metrics. You can benchmark the admin panel you’re building against a prior version, a competitor, an industry leader, and even against metrics that your company determines.
2. Define: Shaping how admins interact with their work platform
Design and product teams reach this stage armed with a wealth of knowledge about their users' needs, expectations, and concerns about the admin panel design. By the end of the discovery process, you should already have a good understanding of the tasks they need to complete and the challenges they have to overcome on a daily basis. It's now time to begin translating this knowledge into solutions.
By the very nature of their responsibilities, admins are trained to be helpful and creative when it comes to problem solving. They make a living in finding solutions not only for them but for their colleagues and customers. Because admins are rarely consulted when it comes to UX, they’ll likely be generous with their time and ideas when they see genuine effort on your part to involve them when designing the very tool they’ll end up using every workday.
In the definition stage of building admin panels, here are some techniques and practices where you’ll need to further consult or involve the admins to help you develop a platform that will make their work easier.
- User personas: These are fictional — yet realistic — representations of your typical or target customers. Begin with 2–3 user personas who represent the future users of your product based on your qualitative and quantitative user research. While depicting them as archetypes, keep in mind that you’re designing your products for them. This will help you empathize with your users when articulating their user journeys.
- User flows: This tool illustrates the user's movement within the product, outlining each step the user takes from the entry point all the way to the last interaction. User flows come in the form of visual representations, typically flowcharts. Illustrating the user flow will allow designers to optimize the user journey for admins in executing their tasks more efficiently.
- User story mapping: This is an exercise wherein product teams create a visual representation of a user’s interactions with the product, evaluate which of these benefit the customer the most, and prioritize which features to be built first. The map is based on user stories, which follows this format: As a [type of user], I want to [action] so that [benefit]. This approach forces product teams to look at each interaction from the user’s perspective.
- Information architecture: This pertains to how information is organized within digital products. When designers or information architects work on an admin panel, they lay out and relate each object, feature, or piece of content together in a way that enables admins to efficiently access the information they require and execute the actions they need to take. UX designers also create the flows between screens and pages for seamless navigation.
A prominent tool in creating an information architecture is a technique known as ‘card sorting’. In this exercise, instead of relying on the designers’ impressions on which pieces of content should be clustered together, the linkages should be based on the groupings that make sense to users (the admins, in this case). To conduct a card sorting session, designers (ideally joined by some users) use actual cards or online card-sorting platforms to make it a more visual exercise.
3. Design: Creating the admin panel’s look and feel
Benefitting from the knowledge about your users and how you envision them to interact with your product, it’s now time to apply these into drawing up how you want your product to look and feel. At this point, each output or phase needs to be iterative or cyclical. Design, prototyping, validation, engineering, and post-launch enhancements will be a continuous optimization process requiring iteration.
During this stage, product teams and designers can move back and forth in their wireframes, wireflows, and prototypes. These methods are often termed interchangeably but understanding their differences will help organize your work in designing admin panels.
- Wireframes: These are black and white sketches intended to convey features and functionalities within individual pages. These are low-fidelity representations of UI components (user interfaces), which depict the structures of visual elements and how content are grouped together.
- Wireflows: These relate wireframe pages with each other akin to flowcharts in a manner that represent interactions, navigation, and flow from one wireframe to another. The primary use case for wireflows is depicting the process of a user working through a task as they move through several pages.
- Lo-Fi or Hi-Fi Prototypes are intended to partially simulate the desired user experience (UX) of the product. Low fidelity (lo-fi) prototypes are crude renderings of concepts to aid in brainstorming and validating design ideas. These could come in the form of pen-and-paper sketches, wireframes, or mockups. On the other hand, high fidelity (Hi-Fi) prototypes are interactive, computer-based representations of the design closely resembling the final product. Hi-fi prototypes don’t need to be linked yet with backend mechanisms. Product development and UX professionals experienced in prototyping use tools such as Miro, Balsamiq, Figma, Sketch, Axure, or Pidoco, among many others.
4. Validate: Finding out if your admin panel design gets the job done
After designing your admin panel, it’s important to go through some form of validation with your admins. Design validation is the process of evaluating whether the product meets user needs.
Even if you involved sample users during the discovery, definition, and design stages, it’s still important to get them to validate if what you’ve produced gets the job done. This time, it may be ideal to get another set of representative users who haven’t been involved in the earlier phases in order to benefit from a fresh set of eyes.
Product or design validation typically comes in the form of usability testing, which tests whether the sample users can complete a certain set of tasks. You don’t even need to have a fully finished app for the validation phase. In fact, it’s actually ideal that you conduct user testing on the clickable prototype before the engineering team does any work.
Here are some of the most common issues to test for when validating your admin panel design.
- Is this feature or functionality useful for our admins? Is there still a way to improve it?
- Can the administrator execute Task A, B, C? How can we improve the design to better empower the admin in executing these tasks?
- Can the administrator navigate easily from the home page of the admin panel into adjusting Settings A, B, C (and so on)?
- What are the gaps or inefficiencies in the user journey from Page A to Page B?
What are the qualities of a well-designed admin panel?
How admin panels are designed will never be a concern for customers. It functions behind the scenes, away from people's eyes and minds. Nevertheless, if they're built to empower your administrators, the impact of a well-designed admin panel can be meaningful for your customers and the business as a whole.
To get to this, here are the key qualities that companies should aim for when designing admin panels for their systems and platforms.
- Simple, clean, and straightforward interface: Display the information and jobs-to-be-done in the simplest and most straightforward manner. There's not much benefit in including design embellishments that don't add value to the work of admins; save them for the end-users.
- Efficient UX: Create a user experience that enables admins to execute each and every pre-defined task or use case as efficiently as possible. Get them from the home page to being able to adjust a specific set of settings or configurations quickly with the least number of clicks.
- Fast actions through shortcuts or hot keys: Relatedly, one specific tactic for an efficient UX is to incorporate shortcuts when it comes to simple adjustments. Allow being able to change certain settings by pressing a single button or a group of buttons.
- Consistent UI & UX: Consistent interfaces enable your administrators to develop habits and routines that will make them more efficient over time. Design consistency into the panel’s layout, language, icons, transition, navigation, and other visual (and even non-visual) cues.
- Availability of tooltips, guides, and instructions: We recommend placing some text adjacent to key elements, functions, and settings, especially those that are complex or have heavy implications when adjusted. Rather than having to refer to external materials and tutorials, admins can save time and avoid mistakes.
Champion the admins
While there’s no universal approach that will guarantee 100% satisfaction from your platform administrators, there are reliable tools and techniques in developing admin panels. Ultimately, the design process for this unique kind of internal digital product starts and ends with your admins. As long as you champion their needs and expectations, you effectively champion your customers and give your business a better shot at meeting objectives that matter to you.
Achieving these requires an expert and experienced partner that recognizes the power of admin panels to empower your team, deliver for your customers, and drive business results.