Dashboard Gauges: Indulgence with Restraint

Cherpumple

Tis the season of indulgence. Sometimes it is indulgence without any semblance of restraint. Case in point, the "Cherpumple" — a combination pumpkin, apple, and cherry pie framed in icing.

When it comes to business dashboards, the gauge chart is often a case of indulgence without restraint. It can be equal parts waste of valuable pixels, low information, and visually deceptive. It would be a lot smarter to use a bullet chart — but who wants to pick the the fruit plate for desert?

Gauges have undeniable appeal to dashboard designers everywhere. Perhaps it is the "skeuomorphism" of a gauge chart. That is, it borrows from the look of something we are familiar with as a way to make us feel comfortable or understand its purpose.

Dundas Gauge

In the past, I’ve fought the good fight against these charts. Now I'm resigned to the fact that eradication is impossible. If that's true, can we at least find some ways to make them better through design? Tone down the brilliant sheen and high-contrast colors; turn up the information conveyed.

First we can start by making them look better. Web designer Christian Annyas shared a beautiful gallery of Chevrolet speedometer designs across the years. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Chevrolet 1959 Apache Truck
Chevrolet 1960 Viking Truck

Christian even offers a decent argument for gauges over simply showing a value:

“It’s easy for a driver to get used to a needle that rises and passes numbers that are located on fixed positions. A quick glance is all it takes to see and understand the value it represents.”

Let’s take one of those designs, overlay a few necessary data elements, and see if we can create something worth looking at.

  1. Start with an classy Chevrolet design that lays out so as not to take up too much valuable vertical space
  2. Add subtle indicator of good and bad zones with green and red dots
  3. Show the current value with a bold label
  4. Display distribution of recent history to communicate how the value has changed
Better Gauge Chart

While this chart is still far from efficient in its data-to-ink ratio, at least it communicates the small amount of information effectively. Any ideas for how to make it better?