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Inf@Vis!

The digital magazine of InfoVis.net

Digital Dashboards
by Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 143]

Digital Dashboards are real time visualisation tools of critical business indicators that help in decision making. Its use is spreading and advancing from the executive elite towards the ubiquity of weblogs and personal computing..
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A design of a digital dashboard, made by McCraken Design
Click on the image to enlarge it.

I’ve always wondered why the controls of modern automobiles are called dashboards. I read in the dictionary the dashboard was formerly a wooden board placed in the carriages to prevent the wheels splashing the driver. By extension it has reached our automotive days as the separation between the engine and the interior of the vehicle, containing the gauges and devices that indicate the state of the engine, the speed and other parameters of interest to drive the vehicle.

And, strange as it seems, the name has transcended the automotive arena to enter the business world hand in hand with visualisation. Hence a digital dashboard is a graphic representation that contains a series of gauges and depictions that summarise the state of the company, be it financial, sales or more generally of any indicator that allows you to know the situation, possibly in real time, of your business.

This way an executive or anyone else who needs it in the organisation, can instantly see how the business is evolving, deciding in which areas it is necessary to act in order to correct some behaviour that could potentially deviate the expected results.

In the end a digital dashboard is just a set of information charts (some call it data visualisation) in a more or less well-known format (bar charts, pie charts, etc) that give information about the evolution of selected ratios in (approximately) real time.

The information systems of modern organisations have the potential to provide the information they have in real time. Nevertheless many companies still have to gather this data into spreadsheets that someone elaborates weekly or monthly in order to control the state of the business.

According to Jeff Cate in his article “Curing Information Overload With Digital Dashboardsthe concept was introduced in 1999 by Microsoft that includes digital dashboards as a complement of its Sharepoint product through Outlook 2000.

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Digital dashboard integrated in MS Outlook made by Corda Technologies. Two images of the same dashboard are presented. In the one to the right we have scrolled the page to see what lies below the windowd.
Click on the images to enlarge them.
Source: Screenshot from the example by Corda Technologies. The example is an installable demo.

For bloggers a digital dashboard is an aggregation of different types of information that allow you to see them all on only one page. As an example you can see Rajesh Jain’s digital dashboard in Emergic.org. There you find little graphic representation other than the table layout of the topics and specific links.

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Digital Dashboard of Rajesh Jain's weblog 
Click on the image to enlarge it.
Source: Screenshot from the Eergic.org web page.
Daily Sales Dashboard by Infommersion. This dashboard gathers information about sales and daily shipments. The units sold in October, the returns rate and the yearly units are represented as gauges. Changing the product (left) the values update automatically. Click on the image to enlarge it.
Source: Screenshot from the Infommersion web page.

For companies that build customised dashboards for other companies, the definition is closer to that of a user interface that organises and presents aggregated information in a way that’s easy to catch and to understand. In many cases the graphic interface looks intentionally like a car dashboard. In other cases it’s only the name that tries to bring the known automobile control experience nearer to the business practice.

This way we find design exercises like that of McCraken Design or interesting applications like Xcelsius from Infommersion that combines Macromedia’s Flash technology with MS Excel to build interesting interactive dashboards that are based on the information contained in spreadsheets.

Companies like Corda, Principa or Visual Mining among many others including Compaq or IBM have their own products or produce customised dashboards for the customers that ask for their services. In Spain and Latin America and elsewhere in the world there are also multiple companies that make this type of representations.

From the technical standpoint these timid incursions in the field of visualisation limit themselves to aggregate some well-known charts with visual metaphors like clocks and traffic lights in which the arrows and/or colours show whether the business indicators fall within normality or need some attention. 

Given the precariousness of visualisation in the business world, this is an interesting, yet low risk; step forward, where we still run away from the creativity that more powerful (yet less intuitive) visualisations could offer.

Until now these instruments have been considered as executive information systems, but the trend appears to head towards the ubiquity of digital assistants (PDAs) and cellular phones, going from the field of executive elites to the people that work in the “battlefield” in order to facilitate business intelligence, benchmarking knowledge management tools in real time there, where they are most needed.


Links of this issue:

http://www.mccrackendesign.com   McCraken Design
http://www.pcserv.net/ma_digital_dashboard.html   Curing Information Overload With Digital Dashboards byJeff Cate
http://www.microsoft.com/sharepoint/   Microsoft Sharepoint
http://www.corda.com   Corda Website
http://www.corda.com/examples/go/cordaoutlook/frameset.asp   Installable demo by Corda
http://dd.emergic.com/dgtl/   Digital Dashboard by Rajesh Jain
http://www.infommersion.com/   Infommersion Website
http://www.mccrackendesign.com/application.html   McCraken Design exercise
http://www.principa.net/software/digitaldash.php   Digital dashboard by Principa
http://www.visualmining.com/products/index.html   Visual Mining Website
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