Dashboards and the human condition

Dashboards have to accommodate human behavior to add value

Dashboards can unlock the value of decades of IT investments by linking your ERP, business intelligence and analysis tools to humans who can act on the information. But as the interface between systems and business decisions, dashboards have to accommodate human behavior to add value.

Consider a real-world marketing director in Dallas. He has no fewer than six dashboards to help him manage his performance. There's the CRM dashboard, the financial dashboard, the PR dashboard, the advertising dashboard and so on. Each comes with its own username and password, and to access some he needs to launch a separate application. None of them get his undivided attention, and some of them are rarely used. In the end, the constraints under which the human is operating define the return on the system investment.

Beyond the need to integrate dashboards to simplify their use, when we design dashboards we need to take into account human behavior to get the most out of the investment. After all, despite our individuality, there are some behaviors we all share.

The rule of placement

The first behavior of business leaders we need to take into account is a tendency to be busy. So rule one for the ideal dashboard is it must appear where it cannot be missed or ignored.

To get the most out of your systems and your people, your dashboard has to appear on the desktop. Stand-alone applications and Web-based reporting are good, but as the marketing director illustrates, once you have too many to manage they're no good at all. The desktop is better. With the information that matters appearing on your desktop, you can maintain peripheral awareness of the important metrics without interrupting your workflow.

I can hear howls of disagreement from people who say the first and last time they see their desktop is when they power up their system. But today's flat panels and laptops can easily accommodate a desktop dashboard as a top bar, bottom bar or side bar while leaving plenty of real estate for applications. Look at a flat panel running a mini-dashboard alongside other applications and you'll think panels were purpose-built for this arrangement. But the fact that your desktop dashboard must be small to be useful brings us to the second rule for making dashboards really work: the rule of design.

The rule of design

Visual communication experts have made careers out of showing us how to properly design reports, charts and graphs for quick and accurate consumption. Design concepts assume magnified importance when you shrink the visual elements to fit on a desktop dashboard.

As a result, we need to design desktop dashboards with simplicity. This is the organization's last opportunity to transform investments into added value. It's the last opportunity to transform information into knowledge. Not much can fit on a desktop dashboard if you want everything to be legible at a glance. Even properly designed charts will fail to communicate if you stuff 20 of them into a small space and hope a busy human will see and interpret them.

Along with designing these elements properly we have to be judicious in choosing which metrics appear on the dashboard.

Taking this thought one step further, we have to understand which changes or thresholds are sufficiently important that dashboard alerts should be triggered. This could take the form of higher-priority items bumping lower-priority ones off your desktop. Urgent alerts may have to appear as pop-ups or be sent to your mobile device. Achieve all this and you're ready for dashboards to recommend resolutions to the human decision-maker as well.

The rule of accuracy

The rules of placement and design point to a third rule that looks like a technology issue rather than one based on the human condition: The rule of accuracy suggests that for humans to look at and act on the information shown on their dashboards, it must be correct.

Humans quickly learn to pay attention to things that matter and to ignore things that don't. Even if your dashboard appears where it should be for persistent awareness, and even if the information it displays is properly designed, people will pay attention to it only as long as the information is correct. The first time you make a decision based on a dashboard and it's later proven to be incorrect, you begin to lose faith in the dashboard. That's the human side of the rule of accuracy, but it has serious implications for enterprise information systems. It means your desktop dashboard must consistently present complete and accurate information.

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