Does Your Dashboard Measure Up?

Information Dashboards were the hot topic a few years ago, but the hype seems to have died down lately. A good dashboard is still a very useful way to summarize, analyze, and share data -- so I thought I'd revisit the topic, and try to improve an old dashboard.

Did you notice I said *good* dashboards are useful? That's the key! Unfortunately, there are a lot of *bad* dashboards out there that are just haphazard collections of KPIs, widgets, and graphs stuffed together on the same page. Stephen Few did a good job of helping educate us about bad practices to avoid in dashboards, in his book Information Dashboard Design. Here's one of the bad examples he pointed out (p. 72):

I do some DJing as a hobby, and the "LED-meter look" of the bar charts in the bad dashboard caught my eye. In DJ gear, similar meters are great for monitoring all sorts of things at a glance, so perhaps they could also be a useful in monitoring a business(?) Follow along as i try to fix this bad dashboard.

But first, speaking of DJing, here's a picture of my friend DJ George. He is hands-down the best 80s/90s dance party DJ I know in the RTP area. If he can use his DJ "dashboard" to keep track of all his music/microphones/lights/effects, I bet we can also put DJ LED meters to good use in a dashboard to help run a company!

So, what's wrong with the dashboard above? (Where do I start! LOL) Here are a few of the many problems that jump out at me:

  • The round speedometer gauge in the top/left graphically shows something that is already being graphically shown in the first bar chart. There's no point in showing the same thing graphically twice, and the speedometer gauge is difficult to read, and consumes a lot of space.
  • The time period selector gauge (bottom left), and the pull-down select lists, take up a lot of space in the dashboard. I think it would be better to have all the data-selection interface on a separate page, and once you've selected what data you want to see, then have that dashboard brought up full-screen. (I would also make them all selection lists, rather than making one of them a gauge.)
  • The gauge in the bottom/right. Umm... what the heck is that? Maybe a clock? Whatever it is, I don't think we need it.
  • The LED-meter bar charts don't have any scale, so I don't know what the min & max values are. Also, I would like to see more contrast between the lighted and unlit bar segments.

And here's the new/improved version I created with SAS (click through here to see the full version of it):

My improvements:

  • Rather than the difficult-to-read speedometer, I used a simple (large) text number to show the number of orders. In the dashboards I've created for internal use at SAS, the managers really like having a big overall summary number like this on the dashboard.
  • I don't show the select lists used to choose the data shown on my dashboard (those would be shown on a previous screen).
  • I added a scale to the bar charts, and my lighted bar segments are much brighter, with higher contrast to the background. It's very easy to see the bars now.
  • I also made my text a bit larger, and easier to read (this is more visible when you click the image below, to view the full-size dashboard).
  • When you view the full-size version of my dashboard (click the image above), you'll also notice that the bars have HTML mouse-over text.

And here's my challenge to you ... find an old dashboard you created years ago, and see if you can make some improvements to it, using the tips & tricks you've learned since then. You might surprise yourself at what you come up with! :)

[This post originally appeared on the SAS Learning Post. Click here to read it there.]

Robert Allison, The Graph Guy!, SAS

Robert Allison has worked at SAS for more than 20 years and is perhaps the foremost expert in creating custom graphs using SAS/GRAPH. His educational background is in computer science, and he holds a BS, MS, and PhD from North Carolina State University. He is the author of several conference papers, has won a few graphic competitions, and has written a book calledSAS/GRAPH: Beyond the Basics.

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Re: Where's the fuel gauge? ;-P
  • 11/29/2017 8:41:31 AM

The dashboard design would necessarily have to be with thought in mind of the audience needs of course. I would think there's probably considerable research on design from the folks at NASA and the FAA and aircraft avionics manufacturers to allow pilots to read information from their displays quickly and without ambiguity, and that research could be adapted to data displays for other applications as well.

Re: Where's the fuel gauge? ;-P
  • 11/29/2017 12:26:24 AM

Broadway   That's funny and very true !    Really what comes to mind was during my undergrad years, when we worked in teams to learn how to work in teams.  It was an interesting experiment that would last a lifetime.  Bringing together divergent  backgrounds to achieve a business related goal.

 It was not really a challenge for me but you would be surprised how many in the team of 5-7 had issues working with others.  If I recall correctly there was just one in my team.   I digress a bit only underscore how personaity types appeared to have an affect on the type of task volunteered for.   Some people were of an "A type personality" and of course there were those who were not.  There were people who wanted to really gain something from the experience and there were some who were just trying to skate by.

Nothing out of the norm actually but this kaleidoscope of personalities and agendas left an indelible impression upon me and when tasks were being doled out one could almost sense most everyone who was not of the type I described earlier looking for an "easy task" to fulfill their obligation to the group.

 Often Power Point creation and charts would be considered prime objects to achieve this ( not to say Robert that there is any thing easy about the excellent work you do ) but the ill informed ( which most of us were) will easily think this is the way to go.   But as we see from Robert's examples, a good chart is not as easy as it looks and I am certain those in the team faced this reality as we neared our deadline.   

 I strongly believe this type of dynamics continues into the "real world" and as a result we see the poor product of individuals who have never really taken the task ( of creating a useful chart ) seriously and are just trying to get by.  Unfortunately no-one is catching them until Robert makes their work (in) famous here at A2. 

 Since then I have not had to create any meaningful chart nor deal with those who might, but IMO what we see as bad examples in Robert's pieces today often remind me of that Business School experience.  To Terry's question of is it just lack of imagination or laziness ?  

It is just very odd (yet not surprising) that this question Is still as prevalent today as it was then.

Re: Where's the fuel gauge? ;-P
  • 11/28/2017 11:12:13 PM

Louis, it sounds like you have a few anecdotes in mind when you say that about procrastination and then panic when the work actually has to be done. If so ... do share!

Re: Where's the fuel gauge? ;-P
  • 11/27/2017 1:48:39 PM

I actually love Dashboards and building them but the challenge is that many people build Dashboards without fully understanding the data or the audience and it causes confusion and misinformation. Having a clear vision of what you want to communicate and trying several versions is key, also testing your version with users will yield valuable insight before launching a dashboard.

Re: Where's the fuel gauge? ;-P
  • 11/25/2017 11:39:25 AM

 "....Is it laziness or just a lack of imagination? "


Probably both Terry.  I always get the feeling that whoever gets the task of creating something like this either puts it off and then figures out that it was more work than they meant to sign up for.

Re: An analytics ideal
  • 11/25/2017 8:54:23 AM

That's a crying shame that that tradeoff still exists! Do some dashboard products have a middle manager version that allows flexibility needed to delve deeper, and ease of use versions for when it's senior executive time?

Re: An analytics ideal
  • 11/24/2017 10:50:25 PM

@ Robert, it might hellp if there were limited customizations of starting points or a kind of a starting template for novice, intermediate and pro.  Or starting templates for each type of department. 



Re: An analytics ideal
  • 11/24/2017 3:05:59 PM

I agree. I go for flexibility, but it does make it harder to use.

Re: An analytics ideal
  • 11/21/2017 1:42:57 PM

Flexibility and ease-of-use seem to always be at odds with each other. Usually software that is more flexible, is also more complex to use. When a software company finally comes up with something that's both, that will be a great day! :)

An analytics ideal
  • 11/21/2017 1:39:01 PM

This may be the holy grail question of analytics, but is a highly customizable dashboard something we'll ever see in our lifetimes? A lot of vendors promise this, but the features that can be customized tend to be very basic and force users (even power users) to use the product in pretty specific ways.

This is something I'd like to see anaytics vendor take on in order to make their products more useful to more users.

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