Dashboard design: What is a dashboard?

by Daniel Watt

I come from a sea-faring family, so when I hear the word dashboard the image that comes to my mind is the view of the nautical instruments the skipper or pilot sees at the helm.  The pilot can see the sea and a series of displays which convey a large amount of information at a glance.  Instruments are either used to navigate or to avoid potential dangers.  For example the  depth sounder will communicate to the pilot how deep the ocean is below them, confirming their location and also as final warning system to avoid running aground.  The depth sounder will more often that not have an alarm configured to sound when the depth is approaching the draft of the vessel.

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Stephen Few defines a dashboard as “a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance”. Keeping in mind the boat cockpit analogy and Stephen Few’s definition can help us to design effective dashboards.

  1. The most important information needs to be communicated.  This may mean being ruthless with your data and cutting down to just the key metrics or aggregating / filtering to get a summary value.  You may have the data for the boat’s depth in the last 2 days, but to make a decision you will only need to know your current depth.
  2. To achieve your objectives you only need certain information. For a business dashboard your objectives will often be to spot threats and opportunities. If any of the information displayed on your dashboard is interesting but not helping you achieve objectives then it should not be there.
  3. Monitoring at a glance requires the data or views of the data to fit onto a single screen or view. This could either mean reducing your number of views or if more views are required then shrinking them as much as possible by removing detail and chart junk. Spark-lines are an example of a simple visualisation which take up little place on a dashboard.  Scatter diagrams, on the other hand require a lot more space on the screen.