Dashboard or not Dashboard?
There is nothing wrong about dashboard, except it’s puts a stereotype on your consciousness and that defines your further expectations. In general dashboards are good, check out this definition from Wikipedia: “An easy to read, often single page, real-time user interface, showing a graphical presentation of the current status (snapshot) and historical trends of an organization’s key performance indicators (KPIs) to enable instantaneous and informed decisions to be made at a glance.”
Easy to read sounds exciting, at last executive or operating information will be friendly and easy to read! Single page is resonating with my description of A4 or letter size [What to communicate?] due to anthropological sizes of our bodies and body parts, and the context of information consumption, usability. Real-time user interface could be even improved with real-time or near-real-time data delivery to the user. Visualization as a graphical reps for the current status – snapshot – and dynamics/trend of the indicator is resonating with ‘All Data’. Enablement of instantaneous and informed decisions is resonating with Vital Signs.
So the conclusion is to dashboard. The open question is how to dashboard? Is there are standard for dashboard? What are the best practices? What are known pitfalls? How modern dashboards will look like? Let’s start with what are known problems, so that we know what ti overcome to make dashboarding more usable and valuable.
Dashboard gauges and dials do suck. It is wrong way to visualize information. What is a gauge? From Wikipedia: “In engineering, a gauge is a device used to make measurements or in order to display certain information, like time.” Primary task of the gauge is to perform measurement, secondary task is to display it. Furthermore, the gauge must use special principle of measurement, because same things could be measured via multiple different principles (e.g. temperature could be measured with mercury thermometer, infrared radiation, resistance thermometer and other ways). What “dashboard gauges” do? Gauges do not measure anything at all, while they do display almost everything. That’s a root of the problem. To be specific the problem lays in the ill application of the principle of analogy [skeumorphism].
What are other problems of the dials/gauges?
- They “say little and do so poorly”. By Stephen Few.
- They might look cute, but like empty calories they give little information for the amount of space they consume. By Aeternus Consulting.
- Retro design is crippling innovation. By Wired. Skeuomorphs aren’t always bad; the Kindle is easy to use precisely because it behaves so much like a traditional print book.
- Do you know how much research went into determining that idiot lights and gauges that look just like those in our cars are the best way to display information on a dashboard for monitoring your organization’s performance? The answer is zilch; none whatsoever. Back in the beginning when we started calling computer-based monitoring displays dashboards, someone had the bright idea of making display widgets that looked like those in cars. This is an example of taking a metaphor too literally. By Stephen Few, Perceptual Edge. Hence don’t be fooled by the illusion of control instead of real control.
- And several more arguments of why dashboard dials and gauges are useless for KPIs. I will devote entire next section to those details. Keep reading.
Gauges are bad for KPIs
This section extends and continues the previous one, with more dedication to the visualization of KPIs. What are KPIs? From Wikipedia: “A key performance indicator (aka KPI) is a type of performance measurement. An organization may use KPIs to evaluate its success, or to evaluate the success of a particular activity in which it is engaged. Sometimes success is defined in terms of making progress toward strategic goals, but often success is simply the repeated, periodic achievement of some level of operational goal (e.g. zero defects, 10/10 customer satisfaction, etc.)” Just read aloud and listen to your words – activity, performance, progress, repeated, periodic. All those words mean duration in time. But what we have on the gauge? Nothing. The gauge clips and ignores everything except current value. That’s poor. This and other problems are listed below, they are partially reused for your convenience from Stacey Barr blog:
- The purpose of performance measures is to track change toward a target through time. Performance doesn’t improve immediately – you need to allow time to change your processes so they become capable of operating at that targeted level. Performance measurement involves monitoring change over time, and looking for signals about whether it’s moving close enough and fast enough toward the target.
- Dials and gauges don’t show change over time at all. You are flying blind. You need this [dynamic] context in your performance measures to help you priorities. Because Dials and gauges don’t use this context, they are also incapable of showing you true signals in your measures.
- Dials and gauges highlight false signals. Dials and gauges have you knee-jerk reacting to routine variation. Check out Stacey Barr post on routine variation and other stats tips for KPIs.
- There is a better way to show performance measures on dashboards than dials or gauges. We can provide historical context and valid rules for signals of change. Check out smartlines. You will be surprised by seeing there names of Tufte, Few and sparklines. Besides that there are other ideas.
Criteria for KPI visualization
There is a list of criteria for proper tracking, analysis and visualziation of KPIs. Having understood them it will be obvious why gauges and dials should be put into archive as weak use of skeumorphism. Proper approach would be capable to convey both detection and representation on UI of this list:
- Chaos in performance. First as deviation from predictability, then true chaos.
- Worsening performance. E.g. degrading productivity or quality or value.
- Flat plateau. Everything stable and not changing, while change towards growing revenue or growing happiness expected.
- Wrong pace. We are improving but not fast enough. The target remains out of reach.
- Right pace. We will reach the strategic target in time.
- We are there. We have reached the target already.
- We exceeded expectations. The target is exceeded.
Check out for more comments and details on “The 7 Performance Signals to Look For in Your KPIs” by Stacey Barr.
The concept of dashboard is up to date, powerful and suitable for modernization. The previous posts confirm that with majority of arguments. But the use of dials or gauges is not right design solution for visualization on dashboard. Line charts, control charts, ‘All Data’ charts, smartlines, sparklines, logarithmic charts and other types of graphical representations are still elegant and powerful to conform to seven criteria for KPI visualization. On the other hand they conform to the high-level executive friendly information (see section What exactly to communicate).