Insight from Agora Consultants

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.


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