Data visualization - also known as Dashboards to some - have become the next big tool in the data analytics driven segment of big business. Dashboards are not new, in fact, the concept- and practice - has been around for quite a while.
Consider the dashboard used to fly a Boeing 737; while fairly complicated in total, each instrument is designed to present information quickly and directionally for the pilot.
Consider the steering wheel dashboard of James Hinchcliffe, INDYCAR driver; it has current information presented on the central screen in distinct quadrants, correlated color coded values to the 4 mystery dials on the wheel for driver adjustment, clearly marked buttons (including the important Drink button), and an ever-present reminder of the team sponsor - not bad.
Consider one of my favorites, the scoreboard at Fenway Park in Boston; devoid of fancy technology, it provides critical information - both real time and trending - for all fans to enjoy (unless, in this case, you happen to be a Yankees fan!).
With great examples like these, why is it so difficult to pull an effective dashboard together? Why is it difficult for the user to understand and leverage the dashboard? Why is the dashboard approach so novel?
An effective dashboard needs to have 3 elements to be effective: a Purpose, a Design, and a defined Audience; often times, we miss the mark on one or all of these points.
- Purpose: Before creating the dashboard, we need to understand a) who will use the information and b) for what purpose. From our examples above, the 737 cockpit provides real time data, status indicators, and alarms to ensure the pilot is informed as to current conditions/ responses to action. For the Fenway Park visitor, it allows for a quick understanding of the current pitch count, outs, and what runs were scored during the last inning while I was waiting in line for a hotdog. For each, the purpose is different: the first supports decisions, and the second supports updated scores and related strategic discourse (at least from the fan base).
- Design: The design must fit the desired purpose and desired response. In the case of dashboards, simple is best - provide the information that drives decision and related action, nothing more and nothing less. For James Hinchcliffe, his steering wheel needs to operate as a steering wheel and provide the information he needs at that time to make decisions and take action, much like the 737 cockpit. Unlike the pilot of a large commercial airliner, Hinchcliffe has other vehicles in close proximity and he may need to take quick action to avoid a crash or divert/ decelerate into the pits. His dashboard needs to be clean and clear, with adjustments correlated (through color in this case) to related readings. At times, the dashboard may present instructions - like the word PIT - to help James with communication from his team, all while driving at 200+ MPH. In a 737 cockpit, it may not appear to be simple with all of those knobs, lights, and dials; but each item has a clear Good/ Not Good indication that can be scanned (or alerted) for appropriate communication and related response.
- Defined Audience: Although inherent in the Purpose of the dashboard, this is the element most often overlooked or assumed. The audience must have a need for the information, the capacity to understand it, and the ability to act. For an IndyCar driver, the information necessary to effectively drive the car very fast is obvious; the dashboard also provides communication to and from the team in an orderly, collaborative, and somewhat coded fashion. For Hinchcliffe's team, Purple Position 1 represents a setting for the primary strategy of the race that his team must understand, but needs to be "team-confidential" as to allow him to have an advantage over other drivers. At Fenway Park, the fans know that the home team Boston score is always on the bottom row, and the total runs are in the left most column after the inning stats; the numbers are large, visible to those sitting on the outfield fence as well as those in the luxury boxes. Retaining a manual board reinforces the legacy and longevity of the Sox, gritty like Boston itself - informative and iconic.
Great, that all sounds easy and logical - why doesn't it always work? How to I ensure success?
Ask yourself (and your dashboard) the following questions:
What data do I need to make decisions/ take action for my business success?
What status alerts are important for real-time action?
What trends do I need to see to understand shifts or changes?
What is the simplest representation of individual information elements to drive the desired actions? Will a colored status be enough, or do I need an actual number value? Is a trend necessary over time, or just the value itself? (that's a lot of ?'s)
Include key definitions (example: define red vs green, Up is Good, target values)
Who is the audience and what is their capacity to understand the data?
What is the best arrangement of information elements for rapid understanding and action?
Is related information coordinated through color, position, or visual linkages?
Avoid "gee-whiz" numbers & charts; don't what you have, share only what you need
Don’t include a graph if a status (red/ green) will suffice
If you have to explain the chart, it's not working for the audience
Watch for inferred relationships across elements that are not valid
In closing of a very long post: The Dashboard is not about the numbers; it's all about the informed decisions you make to achieve your goals. You can then answer the question from the backseat - Are we there yet?!