People: fast forward

XIII.1 January + February 2006
Page: 48
Digital Citation

Dashboards in your future

Aaron Marcus

back to top  Introduction

In the 1980s and '90s, it was fashionable to speak of executive information systems (EIS) as a wave of the future. There were specific conferences on EIS applications. IBM, as well as smaller software companies, offered products to business markets that needed this information outside the military, which had established systems for intelligence analysis.

During that time, our own firm worked on an informal, "skunkworks" project at Pacific Bell (now SBC) that was to provide a state-of-the-art workstation to all top executives (only the Pentagon, we were told, had similar equipment). We were able to interview some key stakeholders, usually the executive assistants, not the executives themselves, who prepared the documents needed by their bosses. Drill-down capabilities were to be provided, as well as access to outside news feeds. Alas, the project blew up before it could deliver, after consuming several million dollars in development, because the key project leaders failed to gain official support for the likely total development cost.

Another client sought to develop an EIS product, this one to be powered by an artificial intelligence engine that could analyze news feeds and extract key patterns. We proposed metaphors for the user-interface based on daily business newspapers, to which top executives were presumably accustomed. Alas, the business intelligence engine seemingly failed to deliver, and the product did not see daylight to my knowledge.

Nevertheless, others did succeed, and the concept of (and products offering the capabilities of) executive information systems became implanted in the business community. They were often embodied in the metaphor of the vehicle dashboard. I mention this bit of history because dashboards seem to have surfaced again, bursting out in all kinds of environments. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Carol Hymowitz, for example, calls the reader's attention to some key software providers and the related issues.

back to top  What Dashboards Do and Don't Do

Let's be clear: Data by itself is necessary but not sufficient. Dashboards must at least provide significant patterns of data, i.e., information. It's even better if the dashboards can provide significant patterns of information with action plans, i.e., knowledge. Best of all would be dashboards that, like the oracles of old, not Oracle presently, could provide significant patterns of knowledge based on real-world and theoretical modeling. We would call that wisdom.

Typically, business dashboards transform data from other, more complex, industrial-strength data-analysis engines, into information, providing key financial summaries. With today's database software, dashboards can provide real-time charts and diagrams based on revenue, costs, and forecasts of the company's future, as well as of national and international economies. The power and speed of business dashboards make them a popular and powerful component of executive life. The Wall Street Journal article cites a study by Hyperion Software, a provider of dashboards, that claimed 50 percent of 470 financial and information technology executives surveyed used dashboards and another 30 percent expected to be using them within the next year. What a difference a few decades make!

Cautions are also provided in the Wall Street Journal report: Some people think that dashboards tend to focus the user's attention on short-term results while ignoring longer-term issues and trends that can lead to improved productivity and innovation. The dashboards themselves can lead to managers over-reacting to short-term phenomena and to themselves being monitored too closely.

Underlying this concern is a culture issue: whether dashboards are themselves biased to short-term versus long-term time orientation, a key dimension of many culture models. However, time orientation is not the only culture issue. Also relevant is the dimension of uncertainty avoidance. How much detail does one need to be comfortable making a decision? How much information density is comfortable or appropriate? Another significant difference is the privacy issue: Tracking devices can enable managers to watch their employees closely. Some cultures may find this constant scrutiny and surveillance more or less disturbing. I am reminded of Japanese corporate back-room offices I saw in the 1980s in which groups of three employees sat at desks butted against the others, facing three other employees. All six sat adjacent to a manager whose desk was butted against the end of their group of desks. The manager could see and hear everything that the employees did and said. This scene is very different from closed individual, private offices or even modern "open offices."

Some of these concerns about dashboards could be alleviated. For example, providers could make sure that dashboards encouraged reflection upon longer-term issues, e.g., including historical data that caused people to think about the relation of the current situation to different times and circumstances.

Hymowitz's article concludes that dashboard-makers and users must understand that information needs to be explored at deeper levels than the dashboard, although that is exactly what dashboards are supposed to help users avoid. She also cautions against the temptation of enforcing uniform criteria for a variety of locations. Hmm. Isn't that what makes it comfortable to leave one vehicle and enter another, knowing full well that one won't be confronted with incomprehensible dials and gauges? Finally, she concludes that "dashboards will be shifting more power to finance executives." If companies are tightly governed only by bottom lines, this trend may be correct.

back to top  The Rush to Deliver Dashboards

I mention dashboards because the Internet, mobile devices, and new players in global software are bringing into being dashboards for the masses, not only for finance-oriented executives. A CHI Consultants discussion thread recently focused on what are best-of-breed solutions for Web-based dashboards. New Ajax-based Web applications, the asynchronous JavaScript and XML technology that allows for powerful client-side processing, makes appearance and interactions on the Web quite similar in capabilities to client-server user experience (see for example the Lazlo dashboard demos at What takes place on desktop personal computer screens may also need to appear on mobile devices. Almost all mobile devices face the challenge of bringing the dashboard to the small screen, not only the Blackberry in the business community.

And what should be on that screen remains to be determined. Google has already stepped in to propose contents for an alternative display to the traditional desktop. Personally, my desktop is my email application; for others, it may be a preferred Web browser. Other major players, from Microsoft, to Yahoo, to Verizon's Iobi all seek to encourage the maximum number of users to keep open their own versions of a favorite set of displays, gauges, latest results, latest news, etc. The complexity of customization and possibly poor vendor- and user-driven choices seem likely.

back to top  Conclusion

We've seen this trend already for several years in the cable and satellite television news screens: The display is filled with crawling tickers, headlines of weather, news, and other key indicators of stocks and sports, crowding out the primary video image of a talking head or other news reportage. Perhaps this complexity will migrate to our desktops and primary applications: The actual "working real estate" may shrink to a relatively small portion, crowded out by what we or others have deemed appropriate to keep us informed or entertained.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the competition to help us make smarter decisions faster. One alternative solution is that the most valuable real estate on the screen, the main menu, which has been invaded by a limited number of gauges (telling us the time, our battery level, our wireless signal strength, etc.), may be a much fought-over territory to enable us to know the status of the most important matters of our personal and business lives. What are those items? Keep in mind that even a few key small, colored dots, properly coded, could enable us to monitor the proverbial 7±2 key indicators of our lives. I am sometimes reminded of a Bible legend that the breastplate of the high priests was adorned with 12 colored stones representing the 12 tribes of Israel. When questions about the future were addressed to the breastplate, the stones would glow in patterns, revealing the answers to the ancient searches for wisdom. Notice the resemblance to today's telephone keypad.

No doubt many product/service developers think they have the ultimate solution. We shall be seeing them soon enough. The presence of dashboards in your future seems, well, inevitable. Let us hope that user-experience analysts and designers have had a hand in interviewing those in need and preparing alternatives from which to choose.

back to top  References

1. "Apple Computer's Dashboard Programming Guide." 2005. Apple Computers, Inc. 29 Aug 2005. <>>

2. Few, Stephen. "Dashboard Design: Taking a Metaphor Too Far". March 2005. DM Review Magazine. 30 Aug 2005. <>>

3. Hymowitz, Carol (2005). "Dashboard Technology: Is it a Helping Hand or a New Big Brother?" Wall Street Journal, 26 September 2005, p. B1.

4. Lazlo Systems demo of Ajax dashboards,

5. Lundell, James and Anderson, Steve. "Designing a `Front Panel' for Unix: The Evolution of a Metaphor". Proceedings, SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Denver, Colorado, United States, pp 573-580, 1995: ACM Press/Addison-Wesley, New York, NY, USA. 26 Aug 2005.

6. Malik, Shadan. Enterprise Dashboards: Design and Best Practices for IT. Hoboken, NJ, USA: Wiley and Sons, 2005.

7. Marcus, Aaron, and Baumgartner, Valentina-Johanna. 2005. "A Practical Set of Culture Dimensions for Global User-Interface Development." In Masood Masoodian, Steve Jones, Bill Rogers, Ed., Proc. of Computer Human Interaction: 6th Asia Pacific Conference, APCHI 2004, Rotorua, New Zealand, 29 June 29-2 July 2004, Volume 3101 / 2004 , p. 252-261. Berlin: Springer-Verlag GmbH, ISSN: 0302-9743, ISBN: 3-540-22312-6.

8. Mayhew, Deborah J. Principles and Guidelines in Software User Interface Design. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, USA: Prentice Hall, 1992.

9. Tufte, Edward R. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Cheshire, CT, USA: Graphics Press, 2001.

10. Verizon's Iobi interactive Flash demo:

back to top  Author

Aaron Marcus

About the Author:

Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.

back to top 

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