This is part one of a series on dashboard visualization.
Dashboards serve one purpose in life: to tell us about critical business or operational metrics.
This is a dashboard:
This dashboard tells me several things. Things which are readily apparent from this photograph include:
- How close I am to my goal of 150 MPH
- How close I am to my goal of 8000 RPM and blowing my engine out
- That my door was ajar while taking this photo
- That the English system of measures is superior because it is in bigger numbers than that silly Metric system
The first three are critical operational metrics; the fourth is a simple fact of life but one that bears repeating whenever possible. There are several other measures which appear (approximately how many miles I have before I run out of fuel, how many miles I have driven since my last fuel-up, etc.) but that’s good enough for this post.
Here is another dashboard:
This dashboard looks at the different Marvel TV shows aired on Netflix, starting with Daredevil and ending with The Punisher. This is absolutely not a perfect dashboard, and we’ll talk about some reasons why over the course of this series, but it does illuminate some of the key features of a dashboard.
There are a few things which make dashboards useful:
- Ideally, the dashboard is a “single pane of glass.” By that, I mean that all relevant indicators are visible on the screen at the same time. With my car, it’s close but no cigar: I can see one of miles traveled, average fuel mileage, or current fuel mileage at a time. If I want to see a different item, I need to hit a button on the steering wheel to scroll through those options. By contrast, the TV show dashboard has everything on a single screen with no scrolling or switching required.
- Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are readily apparent. For the TV show dashboard, we have a couple key metrics on display: episode rating and number of votes as sourced from IMDB at the time I pulled those numbers.
- Relevant KPIs are bunched together in a logical fashion. On the top half of the dashboard, we see two visuals relating to average rating by show. The bottom half show rating & user vote counts for the three highest-rated shows.
- Layouts are consistent between dashboard elements and between related dashboards. On the TV show dashboard, bars and columns use a single, consistent color. Also, shows have thematic colors: Daredevil in red, Jessica Jones blue, Punisher black, etc. If I had a second dashboard for season two, I would want to use the same theme.
Types of Dashboards
There are three major types of dashboards that I’m going to cover here: operational dashboards, strategic dashboards, and tactical dashboards. These different dashboards will fit the differing needs of an organization.
Operational dashboards provide “day-to-day” data that assist line employees in making decisions. For example, here is a dashboard taken from an API that I own:
If I showed this dashboard to my CEO, there’s a good chance that he won’t care. Not because he’s a cruel person, but because it gives information specific to somebody in my role (or someone on my team) and does not directly relate to him. He simply does not have the context necessary to make sense of this dashboard and apply it to things that drive his concerns. If he were my target audience, then I would have failed, regardless of how many design principles I follow or how beautiful I make the thing. But let’s not go there just yet; I’m going to talk about audiences soon.
One of the best uses for operational dashboards is helping users see if processes have gone out of control.
This is a visual of a process that has gone out of control: the grey box is three standard deviations from the mean, and we have data points which have gone outside that box. At this point, it appears that there is a new trend in place. We don’t know what exactly that trend is just yet (not with only 2 or maybe 3 data points available) but whatever we are graphing is no longer following its previous pattern.
One of the best things an operational dashboard can do is expose whether an important process has gone out of control and therefore might require human intervention. In other words, operational dashboards drive action. Because of this, you ideally want operational dashboards updated in real time, though it’s usually okay to have them update periodically—maybe every 1 minute, 5 minutes, 1 hour, whatever.
Strategic dashboards focus on Key Performance Indicators which are tracked periodically and give you an idea of the big picture. Good strategic dashboards let people get a quick view of important business measures.
Again, I’m not saying that this is a perfect dashboard (I have a few concerns with it), but it does show critical KPIs around revenue and customers, namely actuals, targets, and year-over-year comparisons.
These dashboards should show long-term information, so you don’t expect them to update in real time; instead, the equivalent of “real time” for a strategic dashboard is more like daily, but even monthly or quarterly updates can be fine.
Finally, we have tactical dashboards. My peculiar definition of tactical dashboards is that they are dashboards which show business-level KPIs like strategic dashboards, but they let you slice and dice the data in a way that strategic dashboards won’t.
Tactical dashboards have the same refresh cadence of strategic dashboards, but there are a couple of things on this that I wouldn’t want to see on a strategic dashboard. First, there is a table on the left-hand side. If you show a large table to a C-level, the answer is usually “tl;dr” and for good reason: they don’t have time to pore over the data like an analyst would. But for a tactical dashboard, we are analyzing strategic information, and so it’s helpful to include more detailed breakdowns of the data.
Secondly, we have filters on the dashboard; in this case, the filters are on city+state and date. These filters let us slice the data across time and location. That can be very helpful for an analyst or someone wanting to dig into the data further.
There are several different types of dashboards available. They target different needs for different users at different times, but the good news is that most principles apply to all types of business dashboards. Over the next several posts in this series, I will cover these principles, and then we will take a look at the most important dashboard of our era.