The dashboard in user interface (UI) design originates from a pilot’s panel of controls that sits on the front of a vehicle. It is everything the pilot needs in order to drive, collected in one place. In UI, dashboards are typically rendered as a grid of cards displaying graphs and numbers, and more often than I’d like, the whole thing is a blanket of red, yellow, and green indicators. Designers love to design them, and businesses love commissioning them…
What would a pilot miss if he were to stay fixated on the dashboard controls? Is it taking the metaphor too far to say that we are “missing the view” when it comes to digital dashboard design? Businesses remain fixed on making dashboards beautiful, what data to display, when we should really be learning how to direct people to where they need to go.
What I’d like to see are dashboards with more bias, which is needed to propel users forward. Dashboards should point you somewhere, but often they just are just reporting data. Sometimes that is really what is needed, but I contend that enterprise businesses are too quick to pick generic dashboards as a solution, without an openness for exploring more creative ways to empower data-driven workers.
Bias and prejudice are construed as things to avoid in our culture, but in UX design, it just means that a design is doing something very intentional and specific, making no apologies for not being everything for everyone. In journalism, an unbiased article is just a reporting of facts, but a biased one is actually trying to move you.
Think outside the (card) box
Cards are immensely popular to design these days, but the danger with them is that they give designers tunnel vision by keeping their focus on the individual card content, rather than on the whole picture. Landing pages, sign up forms, about pages, articles, slideshows, shopping pages, and help pages are examples of the many ways that content can be organized on a page. Mixing different ways of presenting content will help dashboards achieve better visual and content rhythm, a term I use to describe the pace and timing with which information is perceived.
Case Study: Mailchimp
Mailchimp serves as a great example of these two principles at work.
The above screen is what you see when you first come to your account page. Already it creates a sense of accomplishment and offers me a path forward. Mailchimp does a great job of keeping the ‘empty state’ pages action oriented, so there is always a clear next step. An ordinary page might ask, “what would you like to do?” but a page with appropriate design bias says, “here’s where you are going and what you need to do to get there.”
This is a page that functions a bit like a dashboard would, in that it gives you a status report of the key elements. Notice how the one element that needs attention provides you only with the information and the actions you need to resolve that particular issue. A biased design means one with sharp focus.
And look, a card-less dashboard. Yes, you have to scroll more. But pay attention to the narrative that unfolds as you scroll through the report. The links at the top are there to filter what you see below. This screen offers us a promising glimpse into what it would look like to lose the cards, focus on the narrative flow of the content, and still allow people to filter and focus in on what they want.