People who don’t know how to manage performance or merely don’t care tend to prefer dashboards (monitoring displays) that say little and do so poorly. This way they’re never told anything they don’t understand; they’re never forced to get off their butts; they’re never faced with a decision they can’t or don’t wish to handle. For such people, the illusion of control is not only sufficient, it’s preferred over real control.
Idiot lights and flashy dashboard gauges are great if you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t care to learn. Idiot lights are those alerts that light up on your car dashboard to tell you that something’s wrong. They assume, usually correctly, that you don’t understand how the car works and couldn’t handle more information beyond “There’s a problem with the engine; take me to the repair shop pronto.”
Most dashboard gauges are designed to look just like speedometers, fuel gauges, temperature gauges, etc., down to the annoying glare of light on glass.
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. In the early days of cars, some of them included holders for horse whips, even though they were no longer needed. This seems absurd to us now, but it’s no more absurd than assuming that information displays for monitoring the performance of your business should look like gauges on a car. The part of the “dashboard” metaphor that works is the similarity in function between car dashboard gauges, which we use to monitor information about the car and our driving, and monitoring dashboards, which we use to monitor information about the organization’s performance. It is meaningless and downright absurd to stretch the metaphor any further.
There’s a term for aspects of design that emulate old-fashioned, physical objects that were used in a different context: skeuomorphs. In a recent article in Wired titled “Clive Thompson: Retro Design is Crippling Innovation,” Thompson, an award-winning technology journalist, bemoaned the prevalence of skeuomorphs in modern software. Here’s an excerpt:
Despite being lauded for design, Apple is the reigning champion in this field, producing a conga line of skeuomorphs that are by turns baffling and annoying. Its iPhone app, Find My Friends, includes astonishingly ugly, faux stitched leather that wastes screen space. On the new iCal for the Macintosh, things are odder yet: when you page forward, the sheet for the previous month rips off and floats away, an animation so artless you’d swear it was designed personally by Bill Gates.
As a Mac user, I too find paging through iCal annoying as hell. Thompson ends the article by completing the thought above:
And if you really need to flip paper pages on your calendar? Buy a handmade one—and hey, get some nice-quality pencils. Let paper work like paper and screens like screens.
Skeuomorphs aren’t all bad. There are times when they can be used, as N. Katherine Hayles explains, as “threshold devices, smoothing the transition between one conceptual constellation and another.” You might argue that by making dashboard gauges look like those on cars, we’re making it easy for people to use performance monitoring displays. It is certainly true that experience driving a car has already taught you how to read them. That would be a good argument if it took days or even hours to learn how to read more informative forms of display, but this is hardly the case. For example, a bullet graph, which was specifically designed for performance monitoring dashboards takes approximately one minute to learn how to read. One minute of learning is a small price to pay for a lifetime of better information more efficiently acquired.
If you’re good at your job and care about it, you want to be fully informed. You’re not an idiot, so don’t put up with dashboards that treat you like one. Demand the information that you need displayed to the level of your ability.