What Is Your Dashboard Telling You?

June 2, 2011
287 Views

One of my favorite analogies is that pertaining to “dashboards”.  For the past year or so, everyone has been asking for dashboards to help run their business.  Forget the fact that they’re currently not even be able to get data in a timely manner for reports; they now have to have a dashboard.  I guess it is a good sound bite and a vague enough request that the users can ask, thinking they will get one thing, and implementers can deliver something different than expected but still justify the “dashboard” initiative. 

One of my favorite analogies is that pertaining to “dashboards”.  For the past year or so, everyone has been asking for dashboards to help run their business.  Forget the fact that they’re currently not even be able to get data in a timely manner for reports; they now have to have a dashboard.  I guess it is a good sound bite and a vague enough request that the users can ask, thinking they will get one thing, and implementers can deliver something different than expected but still justify the “dashboard” initiative. 

Editor’s note: Rob Armstrong is an employee of Teradata. Teradata is a sponsor of The Smart Data Collective.

The comparison is obviously to a car dashboard, so let’s look at what that dashboard is telling us.  Many decades ago the layout of the car dashboard was determined to provide drivers with critical information necessary to drive safely.  The oil and temperature gauges help ensure the car was operating properly and to warn you before disaster struck.  The gas gauge gave you a fairly real time reading of much gas you had left, and presumably how far you can go before empty.  The speedometer and tachometer provide real time feedback to how you were driving, and you could take immediate actions to change the situation.

Great.  Of course people still ran out of gas and that is why we have an idiot light.  These days most people buy automatic cars so why have a tachometer?  The temperature and oil gauges seem to only move when the problem is already too far along to really matter; in fact some of these gauges are designed to not move unless there is a serous deviation from the norm.  And if you live in Southern California like I do then your speedometer is more of a distraction than a help.

It seems as though our entire dashboard is relatively pointless.  We are not getting real information that can be acted upon effectively yet it takes up a large amount of real estate in front of you.  At least an attempt was made to fix some of that with the gas light.  When you are at some predetermined fuel level you are alerted to “low fuel”.  But how does that help? 

What you really want to know if how much further I can travel.  Of course what you really really want to know is where the next gas station is so you can refuel.  But then what you really, really, really want to know is if that gas station is on the current path you are traveling or should you detour quickly to get gas.  Finally, what you really, really, really, really, want to know is – given all my gas options (that I can get to) – which is the cheapest or my preferred brand (oh and it is lunch time so where is food as well)?

That would be a good dashboard.  With today’s technology it is easy to link into a GPS system to get much of that information.  If your car would also ping off various corporate databases then you can get even more info  
(gas prices for example) and if you added geospatial context the possibilities are wide open.

So let’s look at your business dashboards.  Are they giving you information that is pointing you to action or simply taking up precious screen “real estate” to warn you in case there is a problem? 

Is the data being updated frequently to make a difference?  Imagine if your speedometer showed an hourly average or your gas gauge was only updated once a day.

Is your dashboard able to be personalized?  Perhaps when driving from LA to San Diego (with lots of gas stations) you want to be alerted at 25 miles range but when driving from LA to San Francisco (not as many gas stations) you want to have a larger margin of error or alert..  The other part of personalization is that you may want to see data that is different from other users so why does everyone get the same look?

Think about the above questions as you start driving down the “dashboard” road (puns intended, sorry).  If you are a user making the request for capability, be sure to include these ideas.  If you are an IT professional then make sure the user is at least thinking of these areas because whether they ask for it or not, it will need to be included sooner rather than later.

To close, I once discussed this analogy with some car companies.  They asked what I want in a dashboard.  Many items were pretty tame but the one I really want is real time traffic in the next 1 -5 miles.  I want to know if I need to be in another lane much sooner than seeing the brake lights.  This was a few years ago and interestingly the car companies are starting to tap into real time traffic.  Coincidence?  Lucky brilliance?  Maybe some of both.

Happy journeys