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3/17/2004
02:36 PM
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Dashboard Confusion

A clear understanding of dashboards requires delving beneath the marketing hype.

Ready to pin it down? My bias is simple: I want a definition that captures the essence of this thing we call a dashboard, expressing it in a way that is meaningful and useful. I want to promote a definition we can all share, so we can move on to fruitful discussions about how we can use dashboards most effectively as a medium of insightful business information. I don't want to define the term to uniquely specify any particular BI vendor's solution.

I believe that the real meaning of a dashboard is not based on any particular type of information (such as KPIs), but in the way it displays information to serve a particular purpose. This can be expressed in a single sentence:

A dashboard is 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.

Just as the automobile's dashboard provides all the critical information needed to operate the vehicle at a glance, a BI dashboard serves a similar purpose whether you're using it to make strategic decisions for a huge corporation, run the daily operations of a team, or perform tasks that involve no one but yourself. The means is a single-screen display; the purpose is to efficiently keep in touch with the information needed to do something.

Additional Characteristics

This is the fundamental nature of dashboards. Now let's add some supporting attributes required for dashboards to do their job effectively.

  • High-level summaries. The information displayed in a dashboard should consist primarily of high-level summaries, including exceptions, to communicate at a glance. It quickly tells you what's happening, but not why it's happening, just like the gauges, meters, and indicator lights on a car. Diagnosis requires further investigation and detail. A dashboard can serve as the starting point for this investigation, letting you drill down into further detail to perform an analysis, but this feature isn't required for something to be called a dashboard.
  • Concise, clear, and intuitive display mechanisms. Display mechanisms that clearly state their message without taking up much space are required so the entire collection of information will fit into the limited real estate of a single screen. If a graphical representation that looks like a fuel gauge, traffic signal, or thermometer is relevant and appropriate for a particular piece of information, that's what you should use. However, insisting on sexy widgets or displays similar to those found in a car when other mechanisms would work better is counterproductive.
  • Customized. The information on a dashboard must be tailored specifically to the requirements of a given person, group, or function; otherwise, it won't serve its purpose to help achieve specific objectives.

Have I left anything out?

  • Metrics or KPIs? In most cases, dashboards are all about measurements. Monitoring performance typically relies on metrics, but useful information isn't always quantitative, such as a list of new prospective sales leads or the imminent due dates of a project. If the job requires measures that have been officially defined as KPIs, you should include them, but not exclusively when other information is required as well.
  • Real-time information? If dashboard users need real-time information to achieve their objectives, then the dashboard should display it. Otherwise, periodic snapshots work fine.
  • Web browsers? If the best available infrastructure is the Internet or an intranet, the dashboard should be viewed through a Web browser. However, there is nothing about a dashboard that necessitates a specific architectural platform, like a Web browser.

A dashboard is a type of display or style of presentation, not a specific type of information or technology. Keep this distinction clear, and you will be free to focus on what really matters: using dashboards to work faster and smarter. That's a worthwhile topic for another day.

Stephen Few [sfew@perceptualedge.com] is the founding principal of Perceptual Edge, an information design consulting company, and author of Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten, available in May.

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