Categorizing Dashboards

Dashboards can be categorized in several ways. No matter how limited and flawed the effort, doing so is useful because it helps us to examine the benefits and many uses of the medium. I'm one of those people who enjoys the process of classifying things, breaking them up into groups. It's an intellectual exercise that forces me to dig beneath the surface. I don't, however, assign undue worth to any one way of categorizing something, and I certainly don't ever want to give in to the arrogance of claiming that mine is the only way.

Taxonomiesa scientific term for systems of classificationare always based on one or more variables (that is, categories consisting of multiple potential values). For instance, based on the variable "platform," a dashboard taxonomy could consist of those that run in client/server mode and those that run in web browsers. The following table lists several variables that can be used to structure dashboard taxonomies, along with potential values for each. This list certainly isn't comprehensive; these are simply my attempts to express the variety and explore the potential of the dashboard medium.

Table 2-1.







Type of data



Data domain





Human Resources

Type of measures

Balanced Scorecard (for example, KPIs)

Six Sigma


Span of data




Update frequency





Real time or near real time


Static display

Interactive display (drill-down, filters, etc.)

Mechanisms of display

Primarily graphical

Primarily text

Integration of graphics and text

Portal functionality

Conduit to additional data

No portal functionality


2.1.1. Classifying Dashboards by Role

Perhaps one of the most useful ways to categorize a dashboard, and the one that I'll focus on, is by its rolethe type of business activity that it supports. My breakdown of dashboards into three roles (strategic, analytical, and operational) is certainly not the only way to express the types of business activities a dashboard can support. However, this is the only classification that significantly relates to differences in visual design. Dashboards for strategic purposes

The primary use of dashboards today is for strategic purposes. The popular "executive dashboard," and most of the dashboards that support managers at any level in an organization, are strategic in nature. They provide the quick overview that decision makers need to monitor the health and opportunities of the business. Dashboards of this type focus on high-level measures of performance, including forecasts to light the path into the future. Although these measures can benefit from contextual information to clarify the meaning, such as comparisons to targets and brief histories, along with simple evaluators of performance (for example, good and bad), too much information of this type or too many subtle gradations can distract from the primary and immediate goals of the strategic decision maker.

Extremely simple display mechanisms work best for this type of dashboard. Given the goal of long-term strategic direction, rather than immediate reactions to fast-paced changes, these dashboards don't require real-time data; rather, they benefit from static snapshots taken monthly, weekly, or daily. Lastly, they are usually unidirectional displays that simply present what is going on. They are not designed for the interaction that might be needed to support further analysis, because this is rarely the direct responsibility of the strategic manager. You'll be lucky if you can get an executive to view the information on a computer screen rather than a piece of paper, let alone deal with the navigational demands of interactive online analysis. Dashboards for analytical purposes

Dashboards that support data analysis require a different design approach. In these cases the information often demands greater context, such as rich comparisons, more extensive history, and subtler performance evaluators. Like strategic dashboards, analytical dashboards also benefit from static snapshots of data that are not constantly changing from one moment to the next. However, more sophisticated display media are often useful for the analyst who must examine complex data and relationships and is willing to invest the time needed to learn how they work. Analytical dashboards should support interactions with the data, such as drilling down into the underlying details, to enable the exploration needed to make sense of itthat is, not just to see what is going on but to examine the causes. For example, it isn't enough to see that sales are decreasing; when your purpose is analysis, you must be made aware of such patterns so that you can then explore them to discover what is causing the decrease and how it might be corrected. The dashboard itself, as a monitoring device that tells the analyst what to investigate, need not support all the subsequent interactions directly, but it should link as seamlessly as possible to the means to analyze the data. Dashboards for operational purposes

When dashboards are used to monitor operations, they must be designed differently from those that support strategic decision making or data analysis. The characteristic of operations that uniquely influences the design of dashboards most is their dynamic and immediate nature. When you monitor operations, you must maintain awareness of activities and events that are constantly changing and might require attention and response at a moment's notice. If the robotic arm on the manufacturing assembly line that attaches the car door to the chassis runs out of bolts, you can't wait until the next day to become aware of the problem and take action. Likewise, if traffic on your web site suddenly drops to half its normal level, you want to be notified immediately.

As with strategic dashboards, the display media on operational dashboards must be very simple. In the stressful event of an emergency that requires an immediate response, the meaning of the situation and the appropriate responses must be extremely clear and simple, or mistakes will be made. In contrast to strategic dashboards, operational dashboards must have the means to grab your attention immediately if an operation falls outside the acceptable threshold of performance. Also, the information that appears on operational dashboards is often more specific, providing a deeper level of detail. If a critical shipment is at risk of missing its deadline, a high-level statistic won't do; you need to know the order number, who's handling it, and where it is in the warehouse. Details like these might appear automatically on an operational dashboard, or they might be accessed by drilling down on or hovering the mouse over higher-level data, so interactivity is often useful.

The ways that dashboard design must take different forms in response to different roles are clearly worth your attention. We'll examine some of these differences in more detail in Chapter 8, Putting It All Together, when we review several examples of what works and what doesn't for various purposes.

Clarifying the Vision

Variations in Dashboard Uses and Data

Thirteen Common Mistakes in Dashboard Design

Tapping into the Power of Visual Perception

Eloquence Through Simplicity

Effective Dashboard Display Media

Designing Dashboards for Usability

Putting It All Together

Information Dashboard Design. The Effective Visual Communication of Data
Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data
ISBN: 0596100167
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2004
Pages: 80
Authors: Stephen Few

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