Designing dashboards for “situation awareness”

People use the term “dashboard” to mean many things, but in my mind one of the defining characteristics is that a dashboard is used to monitor what’s going on. Whether in real time or once a day, a dashboard presents the most important information that someone must monitor to do a job, making it apparent when something requires attention. When monitoring in real-time is required and responses must be made immediately, a dashboard must provide something called “situation awareness.” For instance, pilots and air traffic controllers use systems that are designed to support situation awareness. Similarly, the manager of a manufacturing operation or someone who supervises a team of people who do telephone sales must maintain situation awareness. To support situation awareness effectively, dashboards must be designed in particular ways. Research into situation awareness has produced a large body of findings that can be drawn upon for this purpose. A book by Mica R. Endsley, Betty Bolte, and Debra G. Jones entitled Designing for Situation Awareness: An Approach to User-Centered Design (published by Taylor & Francis in 2003) beautifully distills the findings of this research into a clear set of 50 principles that can be used to guide this work.

I wish I had known about this book before I wrote Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data, because I could have been more explicit in some of my recommendations and provided more evidence to support many of my claims. Fortunately, nothing that I learned from this book conflicts with the dashboard design principles that I teach, but for situation awareness, this book takes us further into the specific requirements of systems that keep people aware of what’s going on from moment to moment. Most of the examples that are used to illustrate the principles relate to systems for pilots and air traffic controllers, but they apply just as well to any situation that requires ongoing awareness for immediate response when a need arises.

To give the flavor of the book, here’s the opening paragraph:

While a clear understanding of one’s situation is undoubtedly the critical trigger that allows the knowledge, skills, and creativity of the human mind to be successfully brought to bear in shaping our environment, very often people must work uphill, against systems and technologies that block rather than enhance their ability to ascertain the information they need. Knowledge in a vacuum is meaningless. Its use in overcoming human problems and achieving human goals requires the successful application of that knowledge in ways that are contextually appropriate. Yet, across a wide variety of engineered systems, people face an ever-widening information gap — the gulf between the data that is available and the information that they really need to know.

Central to the book is the understanding that situation awareness consists of three separate levels:

Level 1 – perception of the elements in the environment
Level 2 – comprehension of the current situation, and
Level 3 – projection of future status

The authors address each of these levels, sharing insights gained from research for how we can design computer systems to awareness, understanding, and response.

Although written by sophisticated researchers, this book is readable and practical. I recommend it to anyone who wants to design a dashboard for real-time monitoring that really works.

Take care,


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