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Dashboard or Trashboard?

Adored by the software industry and hated by visualization experts – those colorful little controlling speedometers that are supposed to, at a glance, tell executives whether the company is headed for a brick wall or staying on course. Is the dashboard metaphor really a suitable approach for visualizing key business figures?

he numbers at-a-glance, just like when you’re driving a car. A well-designed dashboard is an example of “Small Multiples” design, i. e. the same design principle is repeated for several things you want to display. If you understand one display, you’ll understand them all. In a car, the displays warn of potentially dangerous situations for the vehicle and its occupants. Any company executive wants the same.

But that’s where the similarities end.

While driving, we should and do have the road in our field of vision. This is where we get the information we need to steer the vehicle successfully. Since this information changes rapidly, we can only devote a small amount of time to the state of the vehicle itself. This means the dashboard has to supply all the important information we need within one or two seconds. A company executive, however, doesn’t spend all of his time looking out of the window and every now and then casting a glance at his computer screen. He’s equally unlikely to go rushing down corridors, trying to take on indicators pinned to the wall as he goes speeding past.

When we look at a speedometer, we can then either accelerate or slow down. There is no third option. Therefore, you only need to be told the speed in order to decide which action to take. The results of an enterprise, on the other hand, depend on a multitude of factors which also have a bewildering network of connections to one another. And these factors need to be shown. But the dashboard metaphor wastes space on the screen. It shows a single figure in the amount of space it would take to show a dozen figures if you were using a table. A prohibitive undertaking, when you consider the thirst for information an executive has due to his difficult job.

Information systems must support the thinking tasks for which they are built. A few figures that just show the last up-to-date value, without any context, do not do this.

Other Voices

“If ‘dashboard’ is interpreted to mean information presented on a page in a highly concentrated fashion, then I think it’s very helpful. If, however, any old speedometers or thermometers are supposed to represent a ‘dashboard’, then I think it’s a load of nonsense. Executives want their data condensed, their information all on one page.” Prof. Rolf Hichert, is report, 6/2005

“‘Dashboards’ and other such things are gimmicky, they obfuscate the relationships between multiple data, and are not necessarily appropriate for the data they intend to describe.” Malcolm, July 10, 2003

“I cannot imagine an executive staring out of his office window and only glancing at his computer screen for a second or two to evaluate the status of his business at that particular time.” Craig Pickering, September 23, 2003


You’ll find an intensive discussion of this subject on our favorite forum for data analysis topics, Ask E.T..

If you want to see a good example of condensed, insightful and intensive presentation of a lot of information in a small amount of space, click here.

Read more:
Part II – Dashboard vs. sparklines
Part III – Road signs, not red lights