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Principles of Using Gauges in Executive Dashboards and Business Applications
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

by Kate Mokhoff, http://www.perpetuumsoft.comThursday, May 22, 2008

Written by Eugene Akinshin, Ph. D., Chief Technical Evangelist for Perpetuum Software LLC

If you read the title of this article and didn’t exit the page, you probably already know that the implementation of various dashboards in business applications is a rather new and popular trend. As is the case with trends, which typically don’t have firm rules, executive dashboards have raised a lot of discussion on their practical usefulness as both a complete concept and with regard to separate dashboard elements. One of the points at issue is the use of graphical elements imitating real analog devices to represent values. This article attempts to state some basic principles of using such elements.

Generally, the term “executive dashboard” is closely related to real dashboards and refers to a  special type of report which provides  important business performance indices in real time. It is expected that executive dashboards as well as other types of reports provide data in typically a tabular form and more rarely as charts and diagrams. Though, powerful graphical tools that are used by developers and users of business systems boost literal interpretation of the dashboard term.

As a power engineering specialist by training, I have come across a significant number of point indicators (gauges) in use. And contrary to the widespread opinion that such devices are extremely convenient in most cases it is actually not true. Anyone who has ever worked with point and numeric multimeters can confirm that numeric meters are more convenient since you don’t need to wait until the pointer stops or strain your eyes to match the pointer reflection on the mirror strip with the pointer itself and count divisions on the scale. And, of course, in order to get an accurate registration you need to keep your eye on the device. Vibration and poor light don’t contribute to getting accurate registration.

Initially the idea of using control panels (dashboards) in business applications seemed incredible to me. Was this a throwback to the lithic age? Do you really want to fill the whole screen with these archaic point devices? Leave no pixels to display hundreds of indices that are even more important for business analysts than those in the screen?

This impression was further reinforced by the executive dashboards I have already seen; as they were eye-catching, yet useless. Do you think that a CEO report should look exactly like an automobile dashboard? Of course not. This is not prestigious; it should look like an airplane dashboard! So, while most creative dashboard solutions are impressive in presentation, they are actually completely useless in practice.

In spite of that, as co-owner of a company that specializes in the development of components designed to emulate real dashboards, I could not help but develop an interest in finding a new market for our products. With more careful analysis, I discovered that along with the aforementioned “masterpiece” there are many good examples of gauges in use.

And although I still think that the use of gauges is reasonable in some business applications, correct utilization of such components can dramatically improve an application’s usability and even raise it to a new level.
Let’s sort out what ‘correct use’ means and what real advantages gauges can provide.

1. GOOD METAPHOR

Almost all user interface development guides state that the first main rule is: “Choose a good metaphor”. A lot of times, metaphors come from their subject area. For example when you are developing a graphic editor it makes sense to use metaphors that include paper, pen, eraser, etc., i.e. the concepts that the user has faced before in real life and they are familiar with their behavior and functions. But very often a subject area can be more abstract and finding a good metaphor becomes a real challenge. Usability specialists state that the right metaphor is a key factor that determines application success, as it can dramatically reduce evaluation and training time.

One may ask what the connection is with gauges. A gauge is a natural metaphor for many things. For example, we have used thermometers since childhood and get a clear idea that if the stem of the thermometer is in the red zone, then the temperature is higher than it should be.. Those who drive cars watch the point devices and what they register.  These examples present the clear idea that visual elements should be designed in such a way that their appearance provides as much information on the type of displayed value as possible.

For example, displaying a value on the point device means that all acceptable values are in the range determined on the scale. Slider gauges allow the value to be changed by the user, and the availability of scale segments helps define the boundaries of value ranges. Blinking elements warn against errors or going beyond an acceptable value range.

Thus, a novice user of the system will have no trouble in learning the system interface. At the same time it would probably be better to provide a more informative interface with less graphics to experienced users.

2. SPEED OF PERCEPTION

The speed of information perception is one of the unquestionable merits of analog gauges. The cognitive reaction to a pointer moving towards a red zone or the reaction to a blinking indicator is much faster than a reaction to a changing numeric indicator.

This is why the super modern fighter aircraft use out-of-date dashboards with a lot of pointers and indicators.

Stop! What do fighters have to do with this? We’ve been talking about business, not about war. It is not matter of milliseconds; you can relax and have a cup of coffee before you make an important decision, can’t you?

Well, let’s calculate.

Every manager, regardless of his level, regularly reviews the same reports – in  most cases daily -- just to make sure that everything is ok. As a rule it doesn’t take much time – only 10 minutes a day.

  • 10 minutes a day is 10*5=50 minutes a week;
  • is 10*5*4= 200 minutes a month;
  • is 10*5*52=2600 minutes a year (ok, I know 4 weeks are for vacation so let it be 10*5*48=2400 minutes a year).

Suppose we could reduce the time of reviewing reports to 1 minute due to a higher speed of perception. This way we would save 9*5*48=2160 minutes a year, which constitutes 4.5 working days. Multiply this figure by your hourly wage (or your employees’ hourly wages) to evaluate the economic effect.

And this is for people who spend only 10 minutes a day on reports. What about analysts?

3. VISUALIZATION

Very often it is difficult to make the right decision based on raw data. The human brain operates on visual images and not by mathematical abstractions. A properly designed gauge allows visual evaluation of the extent the displayed value differs from the planned one, and how close it is to the critical value, etc.

But you should remember that visual indicators don’t replace exact figures; they only supplement them. This is why you should never forget to duplicate values as figures. You should always provide access to the exact value regardless of its visual representation.

4. AESTHETICS

Applications should be just as attractive as any other thing we use. As human beings we like using nice things whether they are useful for business or not. Moreover, a comfortable environment contributes to more efficient work; people are less tired and stress-susceptible. You didn’t paint the walls in your office black because black paint is cheaper, did you? Then why should you strain your eyes observing neat rows of figures that merge into a solid mass by the end of working day to find necessary data?  Make an application interface more attractive and many routine operations will become less tedious.

SUMMARY

Visualization devices such as gauges can be a useful supplement to standard report representation. But to use gauges in applications effectively, you need to accurately adjust the visual elements to the exact application’s subject metaphor, visualization attributes, speed of perception, and design of the developed application.

If you decide that gauges are necessary for your reports, I can provide the best library to create such interfaces.

Please send your comments on this article to comments@perpetuumsoft.com.

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