Designing a Better 'Federal IT Dashboard'

We were thrilled when we first found out that the Federal IT Dashboard had incorporated our JuiceKit™ treemap. A year later, the dashboard has been relaunched:

U.S. CIO Vivek Kundra relaunched a IT Dashboard today, and, well, the thing almost makes navigating federal tech spending data fun. Kundra told Politico's Morning Tech that the inspiration for the redesign are online tools people might use to navigate their stock portfolios. The new dashboard offers up more data on spending on more than 7,000 federal IT projects

The first time around, it was awesome to see transparency and visualization brought to the federal government. This time, some of the excitement has worn off and we're going to use it as a case study for "opportunities" to design a better dashboard. There are five areas where it can be significantly improved:

  • Message
  • Flow
  • Charts
  • Context
  • Design fundamentals

(Not coincidentally, these are the types of areas we cover in our Viva Visualization Tour. Next up, Boston August 25th.)

Part 1: Message

The information designer is responsible for presenting the data in a way that the message is delivered in a clear and understandable way. If the data is left to speak for itself, users can be left confused or frustrated. And in all likelihood they won't to see the full value of the data. That's particularly tough for this Federal IT Dashboard where a huge amount of effort has been put into gathering consistent data across agencies.

The goal of this dashboard is clearly stated on the landing page:

“The purpose of the Dashboard is to provide information on the effectiveness of government IT programs and to support decisions regarding the investment and management of resources.”

They want to answer a couple fundamental questions: Where is money being spent on IT projects? How effective are those projects being managed? Unfortunately the data isn't presented in a way that novice users can quickly answer those questions. Instead the dashboard raises more questions than it answers. For example:

Federal IT Dashboard

A giant chunk of overall spending goes to the Department of Defense. But how big are these numbers? How are they changing?

Federal IT Dashboard

Pie charts show that something is mostly green--but not entirely. What does this represent? How should I feel about mostly-green performance?

Federal IT Dashboard

The three ratings lines are converging around 7.5. What are these numbers and what is driving the trends?

We took the liberty of sketching up a revised dashboard that would more effectively talk to the message of IT program cost and performance. Our dashboard has two primary views, spending and performance.

IT Spending. Where is the money going? Here we have highlighted the top spending agencies and those that are seeing the greatest increases in spending. The line chart on the right shows the trend in spending for any selected Agency. In this way, a user can click on items that they are interested in and immediately see what has happened over time. Labeling also matters. We included titles that would be easy for the first-time user to understand.

Spending View

Performance. How effectively are the projects being delivered? In this view, we have included something we call a "Spike Chart"; it is a specialized version of a Parallel Coordinates Chart. The Spike Chart allows you to track the performance of the same entities (i.e. Agencies) across multiple performance criteria. The chart will quickly reveal which Agencies bubble to the top (or the bottom) and how they perform across different evaluation criteria.

Performance View

Within each view, we would let people see the data either by Agency or Investment. In both cases, the resulting visuals are focused on showing which entities are spending/performing the best/worst--and how are the values changing.

There is a ton more functionality embedded in the Kundra's IT Dashboard, but we'd argue for hiding that away until the user has understood the most important and/or interesting information. Then they can drill down into the specifics of a project or organization.

If you're interested in learning more about how to design better dashboards, check out our white paper Designing Dashboards People Love to Use.