The Drive To Visualize Data: Dashboards

Introduction: Cars and Context

Like many people of a certain age, my first exposure to the term dashboard was when I heard my dad using it when driving the car. He referred to it as “the dash”.

Dad’s “dash” was an analog affair that told him the car’s speed, the miles traveled, the engine oil level and temperature, if he had enough gas in the tank, and a few other little bits of basic information. It was all whirring dials, trembling needle pointers on clock-style faces, switches to toggle on and off, a couple of sliders, and little lights that blinked when there was trouble.

Drivers in those days needed to pay attention, all the time, to their dashboards.

Ford dashboard from the 1970s

Old school car dashboards: quaint and charming. And a lot of work. (Source: WikiMedia Commons)

Dashboards in cars, and how drivers use them, are different now. The days of a dashboard with switches to flick or dials to turn are gone.

Today, a family car generates hundreds of megabytes of data every second. Most of this data is discarded immediately, and is not useful to the driver, but some is and may even be life saving. Technology makes sense of the surging data so that drivers can respond easily to important information because it’s presented to them in a timely, easily consumed, and actionable way.

Car dashboards are now closer to the “glass cockpit” world that fighter jet pilots experience. Cars have tiny sensors, even cameras, and other technology inside and outside the vehicle that detect and serve up striking digital visualizations about the health of the car and driver performance. Drivers are empowered to be “situationally aware” about what’s going on (what us UXers would call “context”), as they listen to or watch for signals and cues and respond to them naturally, using voice, for example.

Some car dashboards even use heads-up displays, projecting real-time information onto the windshield. Drivers know what’s going on with their car without taking their eyes off the road.

Chevrolet Camaro Heads-up Display

Chevrolet Corvette Heads-up Display (Source: www.chevrolet.com)

Dashboard design itself is now the essence of simplicity and cutting edge technology, and stylish with it too, arising passions about what makes a great interface inside a car. It’s all part of creating an experience to engage drivers for competitive advantage in a tight automobile market.

Tesla Model S Dashboard

Tesla Model S Dashboard (Source: www.teslamotors.com)

The Emergence of Digital Dashboards User Experience

When it comes to software applications and websites, dashboards are around us everywhere too. We’re all long familiar with how such dashboards work and how to use them, beginning with the pioneering My Yahoo! portal that popularized the use of the “My” pronoun in web page titles, right through to today’s wearable apps dashboards that are a meisterwerk of information visualization, integrating social media and gamification along the way.

Fitbit Dashboard (Author's own)

FitBit Dashboard (Source: Author)

An enterprise application dashboard is a one-stop shop of information. It’s a page made up of portlets or regions, chunking up related information into displays of graphs, charts, and graphics of different kinds. Dashboards visualize a breadth of information that spans a whole range of activities in a functional area.

Dashboards aggregate data into meaningful visual displays and cues, using processor horsepower at the backend to do the work that users used to do with notepads, calculators or spreadsheets to find what out what’s changed or in need of attention.

Dashboards enable users to prioritize work and to manage exceptions by taking light-weight actions immediately from the page, or to drill down to explore and do more in a transactional or analytics work area, if necessary.

The dashboard concept remains a core part of the enterprise applications user experience, particularly for work roles that rely on monitoring of information, providing reports on performance, or needing a range of information to make well-timed and high-level decisions.

Developing Dashboards

In work, we now also have to deal with that other torrent of data we hear about: big data. Dashboards are ideal ways to make sense of this data and to represent the implications of its analysis to a viewer, bringing insight to users rather than the other way around.

To this end, Oracle provides enterprise application developers with the Oracle ADF Data Visualization Tools (DVT) components to build dashboards using data in the cloud, and with design guidance in the form of the Oracle Fusion Applications, Oracle Endeca and Oracle Business Intelligence Enterprise Edition UI patterns and guidelines for making great-looking dashboards.

Fusion Apps Desktop UI Dashboard

Typical Oracle Fusion Applications Desktop UI Dashboard (Source: Oracle)

Beyond Desktop Dashboards…

Dashboards’ origins as a desktop UI concept obviously predated the “swipe and pinch” world of mobility, today’s cross-device, flexible way of working with shared data in the cloud. Sure, we still have a need for what dashboards were originally about. But, we now need new ways for big data to be organized and visualized. We need solutions that reflect our changing work situations--our context --so that we that we can act on the information quickly, using a tablet or a smart phone, or whatever’s optimal. And, we need new ways of describing this dashboard user experience.

Enter the era of “glance, scan, and commit”, a concept that we will explore in a future Usable Apps blog.

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