This blog entry was written by Bryan Pierce of Perceptual Edge.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) recently posted an online dashboard to allow the public to monitor data related to the issuance of new patents. At Perceptual Edge, we strongly support efforts to make government data more accessible and understandable. Unfortunately, in its current form, the Patents Dashboard fails to do this.
When I first viewed the Patents Dashboard, the first thing that struck me was its size. As you can see, the dashboard is about seven screen-lengths long!
(To view the full-sized dashboard, click the image. If the newly loaded image is still small, click it to make it full-sized.)
One of the principles of good dashboard design is that you should try to put all of the information that people might want to connect and compare onto a single screen. If people have to scroll to see everything or navigate between different screens, it makes it almost impossible to make comparisons and see relationships between the variables.
There are occasional cases when a dashboard must be split between more than one screen because there is so much information that must be viewed that it cannot fit on a single screen, even when viewed at a high level of aggregation. This would be a rare case and it’s definitely not the case here. Although the dashboard takes up 7 screen-lengths, there are only 17 quantitative measures that are being displayed here. This low data density is caused by three main factors. First, most of the data is being displayed using circular gauges which take up a lot of space but only tell us a single number (for instance, we can see that First Office Action Pendency is 26.2, but we don’t know whether that’s good or bad, how good or bad it is, or how it compares with a target, last year’s value, or some other comparative measure). Second, there are large sections of text that are used to explain what each of the variables mean and how to interpret them. Generally information like this should be kept off the dashboard by putting it in a help screen or by using tooltips that appear when people hover their mouse over a particular metric. However, because many of the people who use this dashboard will be first-time users (as opposed to a more typical corporate dashboard that might be used by the same person each day), having descriptions on this dashboard isn’t necessarily a problem, they just need to be handled better. Third, this dashboard takes up so much space because the gauges are repeated. Each gauge appears once at the top of the dashboard and then again in the detailed section. This might be necessary when the dashboard is seven screen-lengths long, but if the dashboard had been created using the kind of space-saving display mechanisms that good dashboard design requires, it wouldn’t have been necessary.
Below is a redesign of the Patents Dashboard that I mocked up using space-saving means of display like bullet graphs and sparklines. I encourage you to click the image to view it at full size as the image below is too small to be seen clearly:
As you can see, by using bullet graphs and sparklines, rather than circular gauges, I was able to fit all of the metrics from the original dashboard onto a single screen and I still have about 25% of the screen left over for additional content. I also included a couple of line graphs to facilitate easy comparisons between the number of patent applications that are received and the number that are processed. In an attempt to make the information easier to digest, I’ve arranged the metrics into logical groupings so that people can easily see the different types of data and make meaningful comparisons between related variables.
Rather than displaying descriptions next to each of the metrics, I’ve designed it so that people can simply click on a metric and read its description in the box at the bottom of the screen. In my mock up, the “Traditional Total Pendency” metric has been clicked, so it’s highlighted with a light gray border and its description appears in the bottom box. This design makes it easy for people to get descriptions right on the dashboard, but it doesn’t clutter it by displaying all of the descriptions all the time.
There’s one additional thing I want to point out. It is common to see a large title, a logo, and decorative graphics at the top of dashboards. In the USPTO example, the top 1/3 of the first page is filled with these things. The top portion of the dashboard, especially the top-left, is the most visually weighty real estate on the computer screen. It should be filled with important data, not a silly image of a person looking at bar graphs through binoculars.
If you’re creating a dashboard for external users and need to include branding, consider placing it in the bottom-right corner. This is the least prominent portion of the dashboard, so it’s perfect for non-data content, such as logos, which must be included, but shouldn’t dominate.
I built this redesign based on the assumption that the metrics the USPTO chose for their dashboard are useful to people who work with patents. Given that I don’t work in the field, I chose not to create additional metrics to fill in the empty space. However, the USPTO could surely find a good use for the free space, either by including other useful metrics, or by including other graphs to give more context to the existing metrics.
My simple redesign took a seven screen-length dashboard and collapsed it to ¾ of a screen (assuming a screen resolution of 1024 x 768), while adding additional information. I was able to do this because I used display mechanisms that were designed with the tight space requirements of a dashboard in mind. Because the design uses sparklines instead of full line graphs for the time-series information, we can’t make magnitude comparisons or determine individual values within the lines, but we can see the pattern of change through time and spot exceptions, and we can do so for every variable, not just the nine that included time-series information in the original. Using the dashboard we can quickly get an overview of the data and spot metrics with interesting values, patterns, trends, or exceptions. Once we find something interesting, we could then drill into the metric to see a different screen with more detailed graphs. The purpose of a well-designed dashboard is not to try to display all the details that might eventually be needed; it’s to display the most important information at a level that people can quickly comprehend, so they know where to begin if they need to dig in for more information.