Dashboards are designed to help us monitor what’s going on at a glance—or at least, that’s what they’re supposed to do. Unfortunately, any time a vendor combines more than one chart on a single screen, they call it a dashboard, no matter what its purpose, which creates a great deal of confusion. To give people a means to rapidly monitor what’s going on, dashboards must be designed in particular ways to take advantage of the strengths of visual perception and cognition and to work around or augment their weaknesses.
I keep my eyes open for anything new on the Web that goes by the name “dashboard,” and I mostly find examples that fail to communicate in a way that truly supports monitoring. I recently saw a press release from 8e6 Technologies, which announced their new product called 8e6 Threat Analysis Reporter.
8e6 Technologies, a security company dedicated to Internet filtering and reporting, today announced a new enterprise reporting suite designed to alert corporate executives and IT professionals about Internet threats coming from within their organization. With this product suite, 8e6 is introducing the new Threat Analysis Reporter, a real-time monitoring and remediation solution that displays an organization’s current security threat level, stratified across various gauges in an easy-to-read dashboard interface.
What does it provide?
A redesigned, Web-based user interface that is intuitive for users and provides better visibility to network health through a new graphical dashboard.
In other words, it uses a dashboard to help network administrators monitor the Internet activity of a company’s employees in an attempt to spot threats quickly and respond to them. Unfortunately, what they provide is data-lite—it not only tastes bad but it’s less filling. The product’s data sheet includes the following screen print:
If you were a network administrator responsible for monitoring real-time Internet activity, assuming that the red, yellow, and red zones on these gauges were defined meaningfully, you could examine this dashboard and detect potential problems (that is, the needle is in the red), but you would have to work much harder at it than the at-a-glance monitoring that dashboards ought to support. Study this dashboard for a few minutes to see if you can detect any of the flaws in its design.
Now that you’ve taken some time to critique this on your own, here are a few of the flaws that I noticed:
- Measures that are in the problem zone (that is, in the red) don’t pop out as clearly as they ought. With so much green, yellow, and red color on this screen, noticing that a needle is pointing to the red zone takes time. Not a lot of time, but much longer than it ought, especially for real-time monitoring. This dashboard attempts to assist in the search for trouble by changing the color of the gauge’s title to red when the needle ventures into the red zone, which might be an adequate attention-getter if red were not used so much elsewhere. If the color red only appeared on the dashboard next to items that needed attention, people would able to spot the problems much faster.
- All of the gauges work exactly the same, with the green zone on the left, yellow in the middle, and red on the right, but this doesn’t seem to match the nature of the data. If a high number of people in your company are accessing adult Internet content (the top left gauge), that’s definitely a bad thing (unless your company serves as a pornography watchdog). Low numbers in the green zone and high numbers in the red zone make perfect sense in this case. What I don’t understand is why a high level of productivity (the top middle gauge) is a bad thing (or security, network, engineering, and marketing).
- These circular gauges use of a great deal of space to say very little. They tell us a number, such as 351 for adult content, and if this is good, satisfactory, or bad, and that’s it. Apparently 351 is as bad as it gets for adult content, because the needle is pegged at the extreme end of the red zone. For a full screen, 10 numbers and ten qualitative judgments (good, satisfactory, or bad), isn’t very much information. I could put this in a simple table that would occupy a fraction of the screen space without any loss of information or ease of use. Better yet, why not provide a richer display of information about these important measures on the dashboard screen, without requiring people to drill or link to additional screens to learn more? For instance, it would be easy to add an actual scale to a gauge (preferably one that is linear rather than round, which is more space efficient), add a target or some other measure to which each metric could be compared, and add some historical information to show what’s been happening in the past leading up to the present moment.
I don’t mean to be picking on 8e6 Technologies in particular. Their dashboard is typical of what I’ve seen—poorly designed for monitoring and not very informative. Vendors that provide dashboards should take the time to learn the best ways to display information on this potentially powerful medium.