Breaking Free of the One-Page Dashboard Rule

Conventional wisdom says that an executive dashboard must fit on a single page or screen. The argument hinges on a pair of assertions about this constraint: it provides necessary discipline to focus on only the most critical information; and it enables the audience to see results "at a glance."

The "discipline" argument is made forcefully by Avinash Kaushik (among others).

"if your dashboard does not fit on one page, you have a report, not a dashboard...This rule is important because it encourages rigorous thought to be applied in selecting the golden dashboard metric."

I buy wholeheartedly into the value of constraints. However, defining a useful constraint as a "rule" assumes there is only one viable means to achieve the desired ends. Confining visual real estate is but one way to focus your thinking. There are others: How about limiting yourself to five key measures? How about demanding that a dashboard can be understood in 3 minutes by a new user? How about only presenting exceptions?

The argument that a one-page dashboard necessarily provides an view of your business "at a glance" is more self-deceiving. Well-known information-ista Stephen Few uses this rationale in his definition of a dashboard:

A visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives; consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance. PDF

I check my speedometer "at a glance". I "glance" at a Heads-up Display (HUD) on a video game showing how much energy my character has remaining. These displays communicate but a single number that is already hovering on the corner of my consciousness. If we follow this advice literally, we’d show:

Acme Widgets Dashboard

Assuming one page gives you quick, easy comprehension is like assuming all red cars are fast. That’s simply not true. It must be duly noted, however, that all red cars are cool.

Stretch Trabant image courtesy jetow@flickr.com

More often, people follow the one-page dashboard rule off a cliff like these folks.

dashboard

There are real problems with this definition:

Dashboard definition
  • In reality, the one-page rule leads to jamming information into the available space.
  • When everything must fit on a page, there isn’t room to describe the connections between information or fashion a story from the data.
  • A good dashboard raises more questions than it can answer. Sticking to a static piece of paper limits any ability to find or present explanations.

Don’t get me wrong: A one-page dashboard is often an effective way to create "a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives." But with streaming video, interactive visualizations, podcasts, Kindles, smart phones, video projectors...is it really necessary to limit ourselves to 8.5" x 11" piece of paper. Or might we open ourselves up to some more creative solutions to sharing the numbers; a short movie, a few slides, a short text narrative, or 140 characters.

I’d like to use this definition instead and will be back soon with some ideas on how to make your dashboards clear and concise.

Dashboard definition