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CHIPS Articles: The Lazy Person's Guide to Digital Dashboards

The Lazy Person's Guide to Digital Dashboards
By Dale Long - October-December 2007
The trooper was large, granite-jawed and wearing the iconic "Smokey Bear" hat. His name tag read "Cragg." I wasn't sure if it was his name or a description. "License and registration, please," he growled, and added: "Do you know how fast you were going?"

There's no way I'm going to talk my way out of a ticket like my grandmother did by reminding a state trooper that she used to be his babysitter. I needed a good story, and I needed one fast.

"Well, officer," I replied, fumbling for the required documents, "I know how fast I was going two weeks ago."

Trooper Cragg cocked his head to one side and squinted at me. "You some kind of wise guy?"

I pressed on. "No, sir. It's just that since my friend did this software upgrade to my car, some of the instruments have been a little off."

"Whaddaya mean," Cragg grumbled. "Well," I said, pointing to the video screen in the middle of the dashboard, "my friend tried to install a computer in my car, but the software overwrote my car's applications. Now my dashboard is controlled by Microsoft PowerPoint and only displays data from two weeks ago."

I looked for some sign that Trooper Cragg had a sense of humor.

"Yeah? So how fast were you going two weeks ago?"

"About 45?" I replied hopefully.

"More like 46," he said, "But that's not why I pulled you over. Your left taillight is out. You should get that fixed."

"Thanks, officer," I replied, relief washing through me.

"Yeah, we do PowerPoint reports once a month at headquarters, and they're always a couple of weeks or more out of date too. There's gotta be a better way."

Yes, I believe there is, though the road to digital joy may be long and arduous.

Dashboard Lights

Last issue, we looked at how the use of slideware, like Power-Point, has influenced briefing styles and organizational reporting habits. If you need to make a presentation of static information, a PowerPoint brief is your tool. However, if you need to display information that changes over time, you're really looking for a digital dashboard.

A digital dashboard is a business management tool that shows the "health" of a business enterprise using at-a-glance visual displays of key performance indicators. These indicators are generally data collections pulled from a wide range of business systems and aggregated to provide clear, easily read warnings, actions and summaries of operational conditions.

If it is designed well, a digital dashboard can: eliminate duplicate data entry; identify and correct negative trends; measure efficiencies and inefficiencies; generate detailed reports showing trends; increase overall revenues; and align strategies and organizational goals. Ultimately, decision makers will have the ability to make more informed decisions based on real-time business intelligence.

But, before we look at the components of a digital dashboard, let's look at how an automobile dashboard works. After all, if we liked the dashboard metaphor well enough to adopt it, we should understand the original design concept.

First, make the important stuff big. The biggest readout on any car dashboard is the speedometer. Knowing how fast you're going is a key to safety, calculating your arrival time — and not getting pulled over for speeding.

Many cars also have a tachometer, which displays the rate of rotation of the engine's crankshaft. It typically has markings indicating a safe range of rotation speeds. While this readout may be mainly of interest to drivers with manual transmissions, it can also be an indication of how efficiently your engine is running.

Two smaller gauges usually display engine temperature and fuel level. The fifth display is the odometer that tells you how many miles you have traveled.

The key concept with these first five readouts is currency: all the information they display is current to within a few seconds. If you see you’re going too fast, you can slow down immediately. If your tachometer shows that you’re about to redline the engine, you should shift or ease up on the gas pedal.

Engine temperature and fuel level are indicators that you can use to make short-term decisions, like when to turn up the heat or how soon you’ll need to refuel. The odometer is for long-term calculations or decisions. Knowing the number of miles you have to go is good. Knowing when to take your car in for scheduled maintenance is the most useful reason to have an odometer.

An automobile dashboard is a marvel of cognitive design because it only has five key performance indicators, only one of which may require close attention, and all of which are displayed so you can glance at them and get all the information you need in less than two seconds. Most importantly, you do not need to spend a lot of time distracted from your main task: driving the car.

There are other indicators on a car dashboard that report special conditions, such as low oil or low fuel. Some indicators alert you to conditions that you would not notice from the driver’s seat. My car, for example, tells me when a taillight burns out. These exception reports, while important, are only required in certain circumstances, so they are not part of the permanent dashboard display.

Going Digital

Now let’s look at the computer version of a dashboard that includes the performance indicators necessary to drive our organizational operations. The roots of digital dashboards reach back to the 1970s with early research on decision support systems. However, early interfaces were cumbersome and proprietary. The deployment of hypertext markup language in the early 1990s with the emergence of various Web technologies gave developers more flexible tools for interface design. By the late 199990s, digital dashboards started to resemble the interfaces we know today.

The dashboards I’ve seen use devices like red, green and yellow “traffic” lights, alerts, drill-downs, summaries, bar charts, pie charts, bullet graphs, trend lines and gauges set in a Web portal that is often role-driven and customizable.

Digital dashboards can be customized for any organizational function at any level in the organization. Examples include human resources, recruiting, operations, security, information technology, project management and customer service, among others. Dashboards should track the flows inherent in the business processes that they monitor.

Graphically, users may see the high-level processes and then drill down into lower level data, which are often buried deep within the corporate enterprise and otherwise unavailable to senior executives. There is some debate over how much minutiae senior executives should spend their valuable man-minutes on, but if they really want to see the data, it is better, in my opinion, to give them direct access to save time.

Interface design, as with any information system, will be absolutely critical to whether or not a digital dashboard keeps you on course or confuses whoever is driving. The first key to dashboard success, as with any reporting system, relies on selecting the right metrics for display. Key performance indicators, balanced scorecards and operational yardsticks are all appropriate content on dashboards depending on two things: how the information is presented and timeliness.

What we display should be relevant to the user’s environment and real-time, if possible. The second piece is automatic data collection. Any system will only be as current as its last data entry. As we all know, systems that work on manual data input require people to stop working to record data. We should try to make reporting a normal part of the work process, not an additional task, by tying our dashboard directly into business systems.

The third piece is that everyone should see status based on the same data. With manual reporting systems, data updates tend to lag from level to level, both bottom-up and top-down. With automatic data collection, unless there is a very good reason for delaying reporting to other levels, everyone that needs to know the status of an organizational element should be working from the same data.

The final factor is ease of use. Can you overload a digital dashboard in the same way you can overload any other type of presentation? Certainly! An automobile dashboard works because it is simple and easy to read. How do we achieve that same level of economy and efficiency with an organizational dashboard?

Try to keep the content relevant to the reader’s position and interests. As with any portal-like application, the ability to customize content will play a large role in customer satisfaction. Work environments, responsibilities and interests vary greatly from person to person. The less clutter on a dashboard, the easier it will be to focus on the information that is important.

The simplest layout is based on the traffic light system: green, yellow and red. Green is good. When an area is at risk, the button turns yellow. If an area is failing, it turns red. Determining the color of each button first depends on whether the area it represents is a real-time activity, such as combat readiness, or a long-term activity, such as progress toward recruiting goals.

In the networking world, we use tools like this all the time to monitor and report on network congestion and contention. You can, in theory, do the same thing with a five-year project by linking that alert button to cost, schedule and performance data. We may want to differentiate between things that could get us in trouble immediately (like speedometers) and things that could get us in trouble in six months.

Regardless of the display system we use, the fundamental issue is this: If something is going wrong, do we want the boss to find out from us first — or from the dashboard? I have yet to talk with anyone who wants their boss to see that something has gone “pear-shaped” before they have a chance to fix it or brief on it.

Closing Thoughts

Let’s review the keys to creating and using dashboards:
Good Design versus Bad Design
Simple visual presentation versus Eye-charts
Automatic data collection versus Manual data entry
Easy identification of trends versus No forecasting
Shared data versus Exclusive data
Content is relevant versus Content is standard for everyone
Drill down to detail versus Too much detail on the top layer

Also, bear in mind that in an automobile the dashboard is only one piece of the total view that includes the side and rearview mirrors and, most importantly, the windshield. You don’t want to become so focused on the tachometer or the fuel gauge that you lose track of the real-world view and run into something.

Dashboards can be a useful reference, but we still need to interact with our environment to get where we want to go. There is an excellent Web site called The Dashboard Spy that has hundreds of examples of business dashboards at www.enterprise-dashboard.com/sitemap/. For anyone in the dashboard design business, it is a gold mine of useful information.

Until next time, Happy Networking!

Long is a retired Air Force communications officer who has written regularly for CHIPS since 1993. He holds a Master of Science degree in Information Resource Management from the Air Force Institute of Technology. He is currently serving as a telecommunications manager in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States government.

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