Insight from Agora Consultants

Emotions and Dashboard Design

In my previous post, Do emotions have a role to play in dashboard design? I discussed how emotions play a part in good design.  In this posting I’ll discuss how emotions would play apart in good design of a dashboard. As mentioned in the previous post, design can be broken into the aspects of visceral, behavioural and reflective. Visceral refers to how to people react when they encounter something. It is the instinctive response to the stimuli presented. With respect to dashboards, this would be the visual cues provided in the dashboard. Some design implications are: Color. Certain colors evoke different emotional responses. Use bright, solid colors to draw attention and muted colors as the standard colors so as not to induce stress on the user. Layout. Some layouts are pleasing others are not. In your dashboard strive to have a balance of information over the whole dashboard. Do not have information crowded in one section and sparse in another. Surfaces. Use subtle visual effects to provide separation of information areas. Light shadows are particular effective at this. Behavioural refers to the usability of the dashboard. How well does the dashboard convey the information required by the user. Some good background information on usability design is listed in the Gartner report, Tips for Implementers: The Basics of Good Dashboard Design. Reflective refers to the long term feelings someone has of using a product (in this case, dashboard). A person would ask themselves: Would I be proud to show this to my boss and peers? Do I feel it helps me get my job done? Is it dependable? Does it exceeds expectations Some implications for a dashboard are that it must have: Good data quality. The user likes a dashboard with dependable information. Good performance. People like things to be quick. Reliable. It should always be there when the user wants it. Prints well. Although designed for a screen, a dashboard that prints well exceeds expectations. From a reflective point of view, often the environment will have a significant impact on the use of the dashboard. If Senior Executive provides recognition and support of the dashboard and use it themselves, it is more likely the rest of the organization will follow and have higher respect for dashboard. Are people complaining that your dashboard is useful but ugly? Consider incorporating some of these emotional design elements.

Do emotions have a role to play in dashboard design?

My background is both in engineering and usability. Functional design is very important to me. I’ve been educated to build things so that they work well for people. With the Business Intelligence practice I lead, dashboards and reports are an area I get involved in. Most times people are very satisfied with the design. Occasionally though, some people will say “this works but I’d like some gauges, dials and colors”. This happens particularly when the dashboard is for their boss and peers, and not individual use. I found this frustrating because it went contrary to many of the usability design principles I learned and practice. What is going on? I found the answer from the legendary usability expert Donald Norman who struggled with the same issue. I read his book The Design of Everyday Things about 15 years ago. In this book he describes what makes a product usable. Although the book was extremely well received it and is a must read for people in the design industry, it did have it’s critics who would comment, “If we were to follow Norman’s prescription, our designs would all be usable – but they would also be ugly.” He addressed this issue in the subsequent book, Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. He answers the question, “Can beauty and brains, pleasure and usability, go hand in hand?”. And as indicated by the title of chapter 1, “Attractive things work better”, he comes to the conclusion the answer is yes. He does this though discussing three levels of design: Visceral design concerns itself with appearances. The visceral level is the simplest and most primitive part of the brain. It is based on sensory information and is incapable of reasoning. Since it is based on sensory information, visceral design affects people the same around the world and across ages in a similar fashion way. Bright colours and loud noises induce stimulation, soft colours and soothing sounds help us relax. Behavioural design has to do with the pleasure and effective of use of a product. This is where usability comes in. At the behavioural level, we are happy if the product does what it is supposed to and does it well. If we only focus only behavioural design, people may find the product boring or ugly. Reflective design considers the rationalization and intellectualization if a product. This is the highest level of feeling about a product. This level of design has the largest diversity of opinion about a product due to culture, experience, and education. People’s opinion at this level is formed over long term use of the product. At this level, people take pride in the use of the product. Product support such as customer interaction and service matter at this level. Dashboards and reports are a result of a design process. Emotion does have a role to play in design. Do how do we work emotion into dashboard design? Well, that’s the topic for the next blog post.

Be presentable to your users

Business Intelligence solutions can loosely be divided into two components: getting the data right (by cleaning it and storing in a Data Mart) and presenting the data to the user (through dashboards and reports). Preparing the data requires lots of time and effort and time to ensure the data is clean, conformed and correct. You can only capitalize on this investment if you present the data in a form that is easy to understand and helps support decision making processes. Here are five tips for displaying data to users. Be aware of the form factor. Like it or not many people still like to print. If you know this ahead of time you can design your report or dashboard to accommodate printing. Conversely, perhaps the user will be looking at it on a laptop. Don’t be caught developing it on a large screen only to have it truncated on an Executive’s smaller laptop screen. Be consistent. A dynamic report that has different layouts depending on the data will only confuse people. The report should have the information located in the same position every time it is viewed. Imagine if your car dashboard changed location of the gauges each day of the week! Keep it simple. Don’t clutter a report with noise such as logos and decoration unless they are conveying information. A good use of decoration is to set the context of which business unit or company the report is for. A poor use is extraneous lines and shadows that don’t introduce any new meaning. Does a 3-D bar chart convey any more information than a 2-D? If not – remove the extra graphics in a 3-D chart and stick with a 2-D. Minimize the amount of thinking for the user. Again consider a car dashboard analogy. A driver needs to be able to quickly glance at the dashboard and understand what is going on so decisions can be made. Visual indicators in a report reduces the amount of interpretation that is required. For instance, if red-yellow-green indicators are displayed users can quickly direct their attention to those areas that are immediate issues. Allow a natural transition to another level of detail. Once users realizes something needs attention they should be able to drill into the detail to understand the underlying cause. Reports should be naturally linked so it is clear how a summary statistic on one report is related to detailed items on another. Reports are the basis of people making decisions. Good report design reduces the possibility of mis-interpretation, communicates issues quickly and permits users to view data at the level they need.