Even a brilliantly designed dashboard can be met with disapproval by those who will use it if we’re not careful to introduce it in a way that encourages them to focus on what matters. Designs that are effective for monitoring information are quite different from the designs that are usually featured by software vendors and thus emulated by those who use their products. As a result, what people expect of a dashboard’s design is often quite different from what they actually need.
I’ve been asked on several occasions to provide guidelines for dashboard designers to use when introducing a new dashboard. These requests have encouraged me to create a list of questions that the users of the proposed dashboard can be asked to help them assess the merits of its design. I’m sure that this list of questions that I’ve put together in the last few days can be improved with your help, so I’d appreciate it if you would review the following and suggest anything that comes to mind that might improve it. Please keep in mind that I define “dashboard” in a particular way. Here’s my definition:
A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance.
(Information Dashboard Design, Stephen Few, O’Reilly Media, 2006)
The key to this definition is the fact that a dashboard is used for monitoring purposes. Its effectiveness should be judged on the basis of its ability to help people monitor what’s going on-that is, to maintain situation awareness.
When asking people to assess the merits of a new dashboard, it usually works best to focus their attention first on the big picture-the dashboard as a whole-and to then drill into the details of each section.
The Dashboard as a Whole
- When you first look at the dashboard, where are your eyes drawn? Are your eyes drawn most to the items that deserve the most attention?
- Can you easily discern how information is organized on the dashboard (for instance, the different sections)?
- Can you easily spot the items that require the most attention?
- Does the dashboard draw your attention to the information rather than to other things that don’t actually convey information?
- Is the information that you consider most important featured prominently on the dashboard?
- Can you quickly scan the dashboard to get an understanding of what’s going on?
- Can you tell the date/time through which the data is effective (for example, as of the end of yesterday or as of five minutes ago)?
- Can you easily compare items and see relationships between items in all cases when that is useful?
- If it works best to get the information in a particular sequence, does the design encourage you to view it in this way and make it easy to do so?
- Does the dashboard provide everything you need to maintain overall situation awareness (the big picture of what’s going on)?
- Can you see everything that you need to construct an overview of what’s going on without having to scroll or change screens?
- Is there anything on the dashboard that you don’t understand? Do you find anything confusing?
Specific Parts of the Dashboard
- Does the way that each measure is displayed express the information in a way that directly supports your needs without having to do conversions or calculations in your head? This could involve something as simple as graphing the variance between expenses and budget directly, rather than making you compare two lines on a single graph.
- Can you rapidly (1) discern the value of each measure, (2) determine whether it is good, bad, or otherwise, and (3) compare it to something that allows you to judge the level of performance?
- Do you have enough information about each item to determine if you must respond in some way?
- If you need to respond to something, can you easily get to any additional information that is needed to determine how to respond?
- Can you perceive each measure as precisely as you need to without being forced to wade through more precision than you need?
- For each measure, can you tell if performance is improving, getting worse, or holding steady? For those measures that lack trend information, would the dashboard be more useful if it were shown?