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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?

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