As we move from the information age into the intelligence age, dashboards are excellent tools for summarizing data and allowing users to make sense of what is otherwise information overload.
When designed properly, dashboards provide individuals with the most important metrics needed to get their jobs done by efficiently presenting information in a highly consumable manner. Problem areas and opportunities are highlighted, encouraging organizations to take prompt action. However, dashboards rarely live up to their potential because poor design strategy and execution can alternately have a numbing effect on its victims. This "Dashboredom Effect" can easily and swiftly kill hope for any ROI.
Fortunately, the spread of this condition is not imminent. By exposing the contributing factors and root causes, we can avoid the pitfalls of poor design. Account for these five conditions to learn how to treat bad designs and create new dashboards under an umbrella of safety without the threat of Dashboredom infection.
It is important for the information in a dashboard to be consumable at a glance. The dashboard is different from typical reports, which are structured so users can spend large amounts of time analyzing and dissecting the data. A dashboard should only show key performance indicators and highlight problem areas. Users need to quickly assess the areas of business in need of immediate attention. To accomplish this, only the most important information should be displayed, and it should all fit on a single screen without forcing users to scroll, tab or otherwise interact with a page.
Unfortunately, system requirement specifications for dashboard solutions usually jam in as many different metrics, perspectives and time periods as sponsors, stakeholders and business analysts can think of. As a result, it becomes impossible to display all this information on a single screen.
A common strategy to deal with large data quantities is to split up the information into different functional areas and use a set of interactive components (like tabs) to provide a base level navigation mechanism for end users, as shown in Figure 1.
Although this approach allows more information to fit into the solution, it also infects the dashboard design by not allowing users to view information at a glance. In fact, as Figure 2 shows, this strategy hides problem areas from users because it forces them to hunt for any performance issues by clicking through the application until they arrive at the precise point of interest.
Although Tabitosis is a common underlying cause of Dashboredom, it is treatable. When designing a dashboard, limit on-screen metrics to only the most critical KPIs. These can be very difficult decisions, but leave any remaining metrics off the dashboard and place them on a scorecard or in static reports instead. Also, get to know the physical constraints of a screen by designing dashboards visually. Translate requirement specifications into a mockup or, better yet, a working prototype, and be sure to consider the screen resolution of potential viewing devices (Web browser, mobile device or tablet).
Condition: Hyperactive Traffic Lighting Syndrome
These days, it seems everything is competing for our attention. The resulting noise is deafening. From billboards to radio ads to television commercials to spam, it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to focus on what is important. Poorly designed dashboards cause the same ailment. One form of noise found in dashboards is the "traffic lighting" technique. The intention is to visually indicate what areas of the business are performing well, poorly, and those that are close to not meeting expectations. Traffic lighting is often rendered as background colors in every data cell or colored icons next to every data value (see an example in Figure 3). Unfortunately, overuse of the color palate adversely impacts one of the primary goals of the dashboard. If the dashboard is supposed to draw attention to poorly performing metrics, drawing attention to other data points creates a self-defeating strategy.
Fortunately, the remedy for Hyperactive Traffic Lighting Syndrome is a relatively simple treatment. Instead of coloring good items green and cautionary items yellow, leave them in their default color state (black, gray, etc.). By coloring only the poorly performing metrics (using a shade of red, as seen in Figure 4), those exceptions will command the attention of the user and will no longer be lost on the screen.
Surprisingly enough, Dashboredom can be caused by the over-stimulation of users, but this does not come from rich data perspectives presented in a highly scan-able and consumable format. Instead, over-stimulation often comes from dashboard elements that have been over-styled with distracting graphical treatments. The graphic elements are intended to convey a strong visual brand and style to provide a bit of marketing pizzazz.
The condition, Glossiosis, is commonly found in vendor demonstrations where style is showcased over substance. It can take the form of glossy graphic treatments of data visualizations or the over-use of round visuals like pie charts, dials and gauges. Although a consistent visual style and strong branding elements can improve the general perception of a solution, Glossiosis fatigues users quickly because its design elements are distracting and counter-productive. Glossy treatments (also known as "reflections" or the "crystal ball effect") can have unintentional side effects, making data visualizations harder to read. Round visuals are not a good use of limited screen real estate because the whitespace in the corners surrounding the visual is unusable. Additionally, the "wedges" in round visuals with more than two data series are extremely difficult for humans to compare accurately (see Figure 5).
Treat Glossiosis by scrutinizing the visual design elements of a dashboard. Ask if the visual styling positively contributes to the readability, scan-ability and usability of the data being displayed. If not, consider removing treatments that add unnecessary noise and may impact a user's ability to identify, consume and interpret data in the dashboard.
Condition: Hypoactive Productivity and Paralysis
Dashboards have the potential to be very effective tools for increasing productivity. They can draw an individual's attention to problem areas of the business and lead him or her directly to information that can help assess and troubleshoot those same areas. Unfortunately, a dashboard with a suboptimal design does just the opposite by decreasing productivity, leading to yet another common condition, Hypoactive Productivity and Paralysis (HPAP).
In addition to delivering focused performance insights, a well-designed dashboard provides quick and easy ways to get answers to questions raised by exceptions highlighted by the tool. By contrast, HPAP-infected dashboards are difficult to consume, difficult to scan, and tend to generate more questions than answers. Users of these dashboards suffer frustration caused by not knowing what action, if any, can be taken to improve a reported performance issue.
The treatment plan for HPAP attacks the condition from multiple angles (see Figure 6).
First, the speed at which information can be consumed and understood must be improved. In addition to exception highlighting, dashboards can be made more scan-able by leveraging good user experience design principles. These include the appropriate use of whitespace to create separation, providing consistent font families, sizes, weightings and variants, and the right balance of data visualizations to tabular data.
Second, be sure to treat HPAP with a heavy prescription of guided analysis. Provide intuitive navigation controls to drill to next-level detail for the data hosted in the dashboard. When performance problems arise, users will be empowered to answer their own questions and take appropriate action if they have quick access to the underlying and transactional data that aggregate up to the exception point. Finally, revisit the KPIs displayed on the dashboard for each target audience. Although a metric may be important to the business, users will be frustrated if they believe they have no influence or control over the under-performing metric; Make sure there is alignment between what metrics the users see and what falls within their domain of control.
Condition: Compulsive Executivitis Dysfunction
Good user-centered design principles encourage designers to research users thoroughly, analyze the findings and craft a design that addresses users' needs, tasks, limitations, motivations and goals. For whatever reason, dashboards rarely get this kind of treatment. Instead, requirements for dashboard designs are frequently driven by a team of business analysts, a group of middle managers who used to operate on the front lines of the business, and/or executive leadership - individuals who may never actually use the dashboard. Design, development and testing occur in a vacuum, and users finally get a glimpse only after launch - often in a cramped training room with bad lighting. Instead of user-centered design, dashboards take on what looks like an executive-centered design approach.
Disorder ensues when individuals involved in the project assume the executive is the only stakeholder. Although executives may have ultimate accountability or provide funding for a dashboard initiative, no ROI can be realized without widespread user adoption. When executives drive dashboard requirements (or requirements are delivered from an executive perspective), the solution frequently ends up being focused on their personal needs or specific business strategies. Tactical and operational functionality that is critical to an audience of dashboard users (including front-line employees) is inevitably omitted when little user research is done. The best dashboard requirements and designs ensure that mapping tends to business strategies while equally addressing the needs of all dashboard users.
Arnie Lund, principal director of user experience at Microsoft, once made a play off a famous Socrates quote, saying, "Know thy user, and you are not thy user." Put Compulsive Executivitis Dysfunction into remission by adopting this mantra. Use the discovery cycles of a dashboard project to identify and understand all the target audiences involved. Then, use that knowledge to design a dashboard that addresses their needs, not your own.
Road to Recovery
Do your part to make sure Dashboredom does not become an epidemic. Design better dashboards that are consumable, deliberate, targeted, actionable and applicable. In doing so, you can reverse the numbing effects of poor dashboard design on unsuspecting users. ROI through widespread adoption will be realized when users are placed on a road to recovery paved by designers who create well-designed dashboards.
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