Build a better dashboard

Every product starts out as something great, and at some point, some percentage invariably end up as a single-page dashboard.

Despite their ubiquity in cars, (single-page) dashboards are useless everywhere else. When you’re driving, you need to see one metric: the speed you are traveling. Yes other data needs to bubble up – particularly alerts about simple problems that are easy to fix and catastrophic if they are let go (low oil, low coolant) but everything else is either beyond the purview of a dashboard (tire pressure) or simply not important. How this metaphor got carried over to software I have no idea, but it has to stop.

In a business you have multiple metrics that you need access to immediately, and no one piece of information will give you the overview of your business that makers of dashboards hope it will. You have incoming emails from internal and external sources, you have financial statements, you have business transactions (at one or more points per day), you have projects that need managing – and on and on into the minutiae of the particular business.

Typically business users have some task list they’ve set up for the day, and usually use a variety of software to accomplish their goals. Oh yeah, they also use sticky notes because 95% of the time it’s faster, easier and lower maintenance than any software that currently exists. I think this is the problem that dashboards, in all their good intentions, set out to solve. And that’s the last good thing a dashboard ever does.

What users really need is a deep understanding of their daily routine. Good software works to reduce the amount of time these tasks take by automating certain parts. It’s so simple, it’s no wonder that enterprise software fails to deal with this. Enterprise software is always billed as ‘advanced’, the ‘complete solution’ to a complex business. We’ve failed as UX designers if we let our software be defined in this way. Businesses are complex, no doubt, but when you get to the heart of what they do it’s exceedingly simple; tasks, done over and over. .

So let’s stop pretending like there’s one magic chart that businesses want to see, and one high-level task that will encompass all use cases. Let’s make the single-entry dashboard a useful breakdown of the various tasks. And help businesses simplify the process of getting to those tasks, completing them, and moving on with their lives.