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The Psychology Of Dashboards

by Alexander Chiang, www.dundas.comTuesday, July 13, 2010

Introduction

Dashboards have been a hot trend in the BI world for many years now and much has been written on the purpose and business benefits of a dashboard.  Surprisingly, however, there is not much literature on the psychological aspects of dashboards.  We know what it takes to make an effective dashboard from a visualization and interactive perspective, but I believe we are forgetting about the human condition.  By understanding and recognizing this important factor, we can develop even more effective dashboards.   While there are many psychological factors to take into consideration, this article will cover the three most important ones.  Specifically, they are:

  • The curious nature of humans
  • An eye for style
  • The need for autonomy

Let’s take a closer look at each point and elaborate on how they apply to dashboards.

The Curious Nature of Humans

We have an insatiable desire to know things.  It’s no wonder, since scientists have linked satisfying one’s curiosity with the brain’s reward system.  An effective dashboard can accomplish this by helping you answer the “why” of a business metric.

Consider the following: if there is an apparent spike in a sales trend for the month of January, you will automatically ask yourself, why is there a spike in January?  If the person building the dashboard thought ahead, they would have implemented the ability to drill down to the underlying data behind this sales trend business metric.  By clicking on that particular month, you move to another dashboard that shows the sales details of that month and any information that would correlate with the details, such as marketing initiatives, promotional discounts and new hires.  However, this may be too much information to digest for some users.  Rather than draw my own conclusions, I personally like someone in that area of expertise to explain to me what is going on.

In our example, I may speak with the director of sales - but hold on here.  Why not leverage the dashboard as a communication medium?  I should be able to annotate the spike in the sales trend and pose the question “why was there an increase in sales here?”  The director of sales is notified of the comment I made and responds accordingly with: “We hired a new sales rep at the beginning of that month so we were able to contact more leads.”  Now, anytime I look at this business metric in the future, I don’t have to ask again or find the explanation in an email.

It should be noted that the first method relates to the need for autonomy, though either method of answering “why” is effective and it’s a matter of preference for the user.  The person tasked with building the dashboard should implement both forms.  One final note before we move on to the next psychological factor: the second method facilitates autonomy, as well.  After discovering the reason on my own, I could have put a note on that spike to remind myself later what I uncovered.

An Eye for Style

It is in our very nature to want and use all things beautiful, as the characteristic gives us a sense of pleasure, meaning and/or satisfaction.  Of course, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder so it is important to use colors and styles that appeal to the user.   The problem is that a dashboard or set of dashboards are generally used by more than one person.  That’s why it is important to find the middle ground when it comes to styling.  In addition, the colors and layout chosen should not take away from the actual goal of a dashboard which is, in a nutshell, conveying the information at a glance.  I have an article written specifically on the art of dashboards; this article focuses on how to effectively use colors and designs to visually communicate information whereas the one you are currently reading centers more in terms of the human condition. 

Dashboard purists will argue against the use of colors and animations (the type that don’t add any value to the information, such as fading in bars in a chart) as they take away from the information.  I agree – to some extent.  Using a gray tone color palette for a dashboard is a safe and effective design but it does not give a sense of ownership.  What I mean by that is a dashboard should give the user a feeling of attachment whether it is on an individual or corporate level.  This can be accomplished by using a person’s favorite color as the dominant color or a corporate color palette and logo.  Although it is not directly related to beauty, it is important to mention.

Back to the main point, beauty is important to take into consideration because the more visually appealing a dashboard is, the more likely one will use it and continue using it.  Unfortunately, the converse has more of a consequence.  In my experience, I’ve seen many examples of “ugly” dashboards that are discarded by users, even if they are fully functional and convey highly pertinent information. 

Using cars as an analogy, the model story is the Pontiac Aztec.  Across the board in the J.D. Powers and Associates’ owner survey, it scored well.  It was a highly functional and useful SUV with its tent package and built-in air compressor.   However, it was, quite bluntly, a hideous-looking car.  Although price played a factor, the Aztec failed because of its design.

Before we move on, I must reiterate how important it is to find that balance between style and function. 

The Need for Autonomy

As rational individuals, it is important for us to have the ability to make our own informed, un-coerced decisions.   Dashboards need to satisfy this desire for autonomy and I briefly described how this can be done in the first section (the Curious Nature of Humans) with the concept of making more informed decisions by being able to drill down or dive deeper into the data behind the business metrics.

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