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The Challenge of Dashboards and Portals
The first in a series of articles about executive dashboards and portals

by Joe LamantiaWednesday, December 12, 2007
In the same way you can create a cost-effective kitchen from a standard components such as cabinets, islands and fittings, it is possible to combine building blocks to create an executive dashboard or enterprise portal to meet your particular needs

Executive Dashboards present an interesting array of design challenges ranging in all areas of user experience. Take your pick from a list that includes information and interaction design as well as information architecture. Add to that the business of creating information architecture that can provide a structure for growth and evolution. These challenges will be addressed in a six-part series over the next few months. The first article looks at problems facing dashboards which can be addressed by using a system of components that fit together to form a whole. Much like IKEA uses interchangeable islands, counters, and cupboards to create a custom kitchen by using a system of tiles, it is possible to create an executive dashboard that effectively serves all its users.

The executive dashboard is a portal that combines business intelligence systems and browser-based applications to summarize the status of a complex enterprise for senior decision-makers. Like all portals, dashboards integrate a variety of content and functionality. Integration lowers the acquisition costs of finding items from multiple sources. It also increases the value of each individual tool and content asset through grouping to help decision-making and understanding.

But integration may also emphasize the differing and sometimes conflicting origins of the content, highlighting differences in the contexts, forms, and behaviors of dashboard offerings. The challenge is to create an effective user experience unifying these variations into a cohesive whole while preserving the meaning and identity of the individual assets. These challenges exist in all areas of user experience, from information design and interaction design to information architecture. Establishing sound information architecture capable of providing a consistent structure for growth and evolution for dashboards is particularly challenging.

Portlets: MIA (Missing Information Architecture)

The portal paradigm (collections of individual portlets in a single environment) is, so far, the most useful and familiar approach to these user experience challenges. I call it the “box of chocolates” model, because it packages a large number of different elements, while keeping each piece in its own compartment. The portal paradigm has two great strengths. First, it is a simple design approach, easily understood by users, business sponsors, and development teams. Second, it addresses many of the user experience design challenges associated with dashboards. It does this by breaking large collections of widely varying content into a series of well-defined and self-contained units. These units then present individual problems of information design and interaction design which can be solved one at a time, independently. It’s a classic divide-and-conquer strategy that is successful because it is so simple.

From the perspective of information architecture, however, depending on compartmentalization and self-containment is not a complete solution. In the short term, separating items in this way helps manage some of the user experience complexity. Over the long term, it results in two significant weaknesses.

First, self-contained portlets cannot be combined easily to address the need for larger and more flexible communication, beyond the single chunk of information. Portlets are a one-size-fits-all solution to the many-sizes-at-the-same-time problem. The goal of a dashboard is to synthesize disparate information, at multiple levels of granularity and size, into meaningful packages that can be shared among leaders, each with their own perspectives. Facilitating such communication is a primary purpose of most executive dashboards.

Second, portlets are inherently flat, or two-dimensional. Flat portlets alone cannot provide a scalable, adaptable framework for growth and change within a consistent information architecture. Two-dimensional portlets will work is cases where information architecture is not a challenge (i.e., when a dashboard shows a small set of critical key performance indicators or functions to a select audience on a single page or screen) But as the amount of content and functionality (hereafter referred to simply as “content”) grows, the number of portlets increases. This is often the case with many successful enterprise portals and executive dashboards. As word spreads about the usefulness of the dashboard, new audiences and users with differing information needs will join the early adopters, challenging the single view of the dashboard’s range of content offerings.

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