Facing up to the dashboard metaphor

After about three quarters of an oatmeal stout, my old friend Sam the BI developer wondered aloud, “What is the ideal dashboard?”

There was no need to call Steve Few or Edward Tufte. I had the answer right away. (I had been sipping an oatmeal stout myself.)

The ideal dashboard, I said, is like the human face. You can read the big, obvious signs at a glance: whether the person is smiling, frowning, snarling, or foaming. You know right away whether things are OK.

If things are not OK, you know you’d better ask. That is, you drill down.

If you can’t be direct, you might go on a hunch. “Hmm, looks confused and maybe a little resentful.” Or, in business, you might say, “Hmm, old Charley’s department’s in a muddle about that new hire.”

Even with today’s dashboards, you might have the same insights. But with the face-based display, your intuition would pick up where your rational brain left off—thanks to finer, more subtle, perhaps even ambiguous signals on the first level.

In this model, the dashboard as a metaphor gives way to the face as the guiding light for designers.

Now, hold your applause. There are problems.

For one thing, a face-based display would require a ton more bandwith. Even after designers figured out how to build such a display, engineers would have to pack a lot more data onto the screen.

The bigger problem, I think, is that the business world doesn’t like such soft, gooey metaphors. It prefers metaphors from sports, war and machines.

But once accepted and once the technical part works out, the face metaphor would fit better than the dashboard. After all, what is a business? Is it a machine? Or is it a group of people—with all the flesh and blood and goo and subtlety and amibiguity that that implies?

2 Responses to Facing up to the dashboard metaphor

The data industry thrives on conversation. Please submit a comment.

Other recent posts

Bohemian Grove a la BI

The Bohemian Grove of the BI industry convenes for the fifteenth time in just three weeks. Naturally, you ask the obvious question: Are you serious? The Grove? A summit? The answer begins with a fond recollection of the Grove. If you’ve never attended the Bohemian Grove yourself — I haven’t, though I live in the… Continue Reading

Favorite Star Trek, a data story

This story shows how elemental data stories really are. Humans come ready to tell and hear them, requiring no plug-ins at all. This young person can do a good job of it. There was a question, followed by data, then questions and answers, and and finally a conclusion. It’s all there. It’s elementary. Sure, this… Continue Reading

Bad stories stop good data at the water cooler

We agree by now that data’s a good compass. One neglected question is tougher: Which map? Everyone’s known the kind of “grouchy guy” TDWI instructor Kellee M. Franklin, Ph.D tells about. This guy knew better than most of his co-workers about how their Washington, D.C. defense agency worked. And he was frustrated. Over the years,… Continue Reading