The incredible power of a single number, carefully selected

Dashboards are all the rage right now.

Senior executives, in particular, love the site of a huge monitor, busting with enough colorful charts to put NASA Mission Control to shame.

You know the kind of thing I’m talking about.

Random Dashboard

But I’m concerned that this kind of display is in danger of giving dashboards a bad name and spoiling what has the potential to be a particularly valuable idea.

Why dashboards?

So, let’s start with the reason for dashboards.

One would hope the reason for installing a dashboard is to make visible information that might otherwise be invisible.

And if we’re discerning when it comes to our definition of information it would make sense to define it as data that has an elevated likelihood of changing a person’s behavior.

This reasoning is in accordance with the origin of the word dashboard. The gauges on your car’s dashboard exist to provide data that isn’t otherwise obvious. And the data communicated by these gauges is stuff you really need to know to avoid bad outcomes (speeding tickets and blown head gaskets, for example).

So, dashboards exist, in both contexts, to modify our view of reality. Absent the carefully curated information served up by the dashboard we are likely to make sub-optimal decisions.

We could imagine a two-by-two matrix, plotting the visibility of data against its importance.

Dashboard Matrix

This would help us to make sense of the evolution of the automobile dashboard.

The information in the top two quadrants is provided by the senses. The driver must ration their attention between billboards and pedestrians, but they have all the information necessary to perform that calculus.

The purpose of the dashboard is to surface information that would otherwise be inaccessible. Historically, when cars had manual gearboxes, it was critical for drivers to know the rev count. Today, that data is less important, which explains why the speedometer occupies most of the real estate on the modern dashboard (humans are very poor at estimating speed).

Furthermore, gauges that used to measure things like oil temperature have been replaced with warning lights that disappear entirely when the variable is within its normal operating range.

Dashboards in a business context

It’s customary to approach dashboards from the perspective of the senior executive but this is a mistake. (more…)

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