Tuesday, July 18, 2006


productive dashboards

In the enterprise world, dashboards are gaining prominence, though their value to employees is often more presumed than validated by evidence. Dashboards previously have been concerned mostly with so-called "C" level information (the preoccupation of top executives), things like aggregate sales or the stock price. If worker-bee employees had access to a dashboard, they saw this big picture data, as if they would be exhorted to work harder noticing the stock price fell in the morning.

New generation dashboards are now presenting data more relevant to front-line employees, particularly their KPIs (key performance indicators). The seamless corporation created by enterprise software is allowing a multitude of data indicators to be collected and presented in ways tailored to the work of individual employees. Such dashboards promise to improve measurement and awareness of activity (enabling improvement) and support long-standing goals to de-layer decision making and give more responsibility to front line staff. Dashboards have moved a big step toward relevance to employees, but few dashboards are truly user centered, because they don't address underlying user motivations.

Dashboards have received scant attention from interaction designers, and what attention that has been given tends to view dashboards as just another UI, often likened to data-rich maps. Coping with data richness is certainly an aspect of dashboards, but it can potentially focus attention of the wrong end of the user experience. The question is not necessarily how to cram more information on a dashboard, so that users can successfully discriminate between different levels and layers of information. Rather, the question may well be to make sure that the KPIs presented truly support the employee's performance. Ironically, visually rich cartographic dashboards may be distracting to employee performance, even if they present lots of data people think is relevant and even if they can be understood without difficulty. Unlike a map, where data often represents something as lifeless and impersonal has geological formations, dashboards represent data that is anything but impersonal: it reflects the incentives employees are given and how they are rated.

Dashboards are a good example of the importance of understanding user needs in context, moving beyond static understanding to explore a user's lifeworld. A recent article in the Financial Times discussed recent academic and investment research on the paradox of incentives. It notes: "It seems that incentives work well when the subject is given a repetitive, mindless task to perform, rather like the piece rates that applied in manufacturing plants. But when more thought is involved, incentives may dent performance. Our minds start to worry about the incentives, rather than the task at hand. We choke under pressure."

What research suggests is with complex knowledge work, where there are many factors mentally juggle, the more we think about multiple KPIs displayed on a dashboard, the more we are distracted from completing the task at hand. Here, our cognitive make-up collides with the business imperative to measure and monitor everything. This conflict is can be resolved different ways. Perhaps employees are being overloaded with KPIs, and so they need fewer, and therefore a simpler dashboard. Perhaps they indeed need to measure and monitor a multitude of data factors, but they should not be rated on all these factors. We could have a sophisticated dashboard of enterprise data that are not KPIs for an individual employee.

Dashboards promise to act as a window on performance, but they can influence performance as well as reflect it. Ideally employees shouldn't be thinking too much about the dashboard. Dashboards are tools that should blend into the background to support an employee's work, not be in the foreground, screaming for attention.

Would it be possible for you to post a few screen shots to illustrate your interpretation of positive and negative examples of user centered dashboard UI's? That would be interesting to see. Thanks!
Thanks for your comment, Jeff

Most dashboards I've seen are from off-the-shelf enterprise and analytics software packages. There are plenty of aesthetically awful examples around. Steven Few has catalogued some examples of silly looking dashboards in his recent book on the topic.

What I am most concerned about has little to do with aesthetics, however. One can apply the principles of Edward Tufte to a dashboard design and still have a emotionally distracting dashboard, even if it isn't visually distracting. Something like a traffic light on a dashboard might be what is most appropriate, since it doesn't overload the user with concerns about nuances that detract from doing the task at hand.

The question of what does a good dashboard look like is not really relevant until one asks what specific goals the dashboard is trying to accomplish.
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