UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1153 December 4, 2013

The Psychology Behind Information Dashboards

With data-driven decisions gradually becoming the norm in every industry, the information dashboard has an important role.

With its interactive and intuitive interface and its ability to visualize data in a single screen, it’s becoming a critical tool in the hands of the business user. Moreover, the information dashboard is also making its way into apps used by laypeople for managing day-to-day activities like budget tracking and fitness management.

So what makes information dashboards so appealing to the human mind? What is it that the human mind seeks that is so nicely provided by information dashboards?

Desire to Control

We love to be in control. Imagine a situation where you are unaware of what’s happening around you. Very soon your panic button is switched on and you want to know what’s going on and what you can control.

From an evolutionary standpoint, if we are in control of our environment we have a better chance of survival. Our subconscious mind prepares us for all kinds of danger (fight or flight) based on our perceived level of control.

An information dashboard gives you that control. Whether it’s a personal finance dashboard that makes you conscious of you spending trends or an enterprise marketing dashboard that helps you keep track of your marketing budgets, both heighten your awareness of a situation, giving you the sense of control you crave.

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This Marketo dashboard helps marketing teams collaborate on budgets and keep spending on target.

Most information dashboards use a three-pronged strategy to establish a sense of control:

  1. Giving you a clear understanding of things to help establish a feeling of certainty
  2. Giving you the resources to predict and plan for the future
  3. Helping you complete critical tasks in time to avoid last-minute panic

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Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

Short Short Term Memory

In his article “Short-Term Memory and Web Usability,” Jakob Nielsen points out that the human mind can’t store much information in short term memory and that this is especially true when they are bombarded with multiple abstract or unusual pieces of data in rapid succession. He cites research that suggests our short-term memory holds only about seven chunks of information, and that these fade from our brain in about 20 seconds.

Dashboards work by overcoming this limitation of short-term memory. By displaying all relevant information on a single screen within a user’s eye span, they reduce the dependence on the short term memory. You don’t have to remember anything because it’s all there in front of your eyes.

What is it that the human mind seeks that is so nicely provided by information dashboards?

However, in many scenarios, there is so much data that it won’t fit on a single screen. Dashboards work around the limits of short-term memory in three ways:

1. Using chart and graphs to reduce the dependence on short-term memory

To understand this, let’s consider two ways of visualizing the same data: a table and a graph.

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It is easier to remember the ups and downs in sales from the line chart than it is to remember the exact figures from the table.

2. Providing an overview/summary screen with drill-down options

The overview screen provides a snapshot view of critical data on a single page, reducing the load on short-term memory. Users can then drill down if they need details about a specific dataset.

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The RescueTime Summary screen provides a bird’s eye view of critical metrics, which can be drilled down for further details.

3. Splitting data across tabs and placing all related data under one tab

This helps reduce the cognitive load on the user by breaking information down into digestible chunks. Also, as related data is placed under one tab, it is easier for the user to analyze it.

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Mint splits data across various tabs: Overview, Transactions, Budgets, Goals, Trends, Investments, and Ways to Save.

Ease of Use

Keep it simple, stupid! This principle works as much in business as it does in real life.

Let’s consider an inventory management system. Using pen and paper, it would take several hours to maintain up-to-date records of incoming and outgoing orders (not to mention the running around involved doing so), with today’s digital dashboards this time can be drastically cut.

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Stitch Labs is one such inventory management dashboard that lets merchants monitor their inventory across multiple sales channels.

Also, with responsive designs becoming the norm in the digital industry, these dashboards will gradually become device agnostic, giving users access to the information from their desktops and laptops as well as a plethora of mobile devices. LumenVox Tuner

The FitBit dashboard can be viewed across multiple devices.

Conclusion

Any product that has an information dashboard as one of its key offerings should keep the psychological needs of its end users in mind. Users like being in control, they have a limited short-term memory, and they love things that are simple. These three factors should form the foundation of all dashboard designs. Understand your user’s requirements and add in your design best practices and you have the ingredients for creating the perfect information dashboard.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Shilpi is a writer at FusionCharts, an enterprise-grade charting solutions that has clients like NASA, Microsoft, Cisco, GE, AT&T, and World Bank. Her focus is on writing about data visualization, dashboard design, and best practices in charting.

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Comments

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Hi Shipi Choudhury,I like your conclusion and information dashboad is very vital to any products.

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Excelent article Shilpi!. During the last 3 years we are working on strategic dashboards and your comments are very pleasant for our work. It confirm in an easy language of the way the information must be revealed and showed to the reader. The big tip is "How to make the things easier to understand". Many designers and engineers try to make complex systems displaying information too complicated, but it is the wrong way. Making the info easy to read is the big challenge .

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Yawn...Such a bland article. Can't believe UX magazine publishes such articles which has nothing new designers know about. Or wait, maybe this is meant for someone who wants to start career as a designer.

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Good Stuff Shilpi!

Being a user experience professional, I quite often get assignments for enterprise dashboard applications. This article would certainly be helpful for me. However, I have a different, and yet a vague opinion on 'Users want to be in control'. I assume that 'We love to be in control' means that users do not want to feel inundated with data and getting lost in the large pool of information . Nonetheless, it also made me think about 'users desired control over system'. As I believe, users don't prefer to be in control of the system/application.
For instance, the user feels comfortable when user is allowed to view some more details about the application/site/products without logging in. Whereas, many cart-abandonment and site-abandonment happen if it requires a detailed signup/log-in process. Here user feels in the control of the system which is unwanted. Any kind of restriction directly imposed by the system on users in any of her activities is undesirable.
So, in most of the cases either the user wants the system to be in control, or the user prefers to be in a seamless control, which in any case should not take the form of restriction.
Your inputs on this will help clarify my views.

Many Thanks :)

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Thanks very much Shilpi! It is always so amazing reading fascinating articles like this as Psychology and behavioral science in general is my passion. My bachelor's was in Sociology-Psychology and I am more and more into the human aspect of IT and never taken a computer course in college.

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Useful article shilpi !

Is there something wrong with this sites thumbs up and thumbs down feature. I can see equal amount of thumbs down, irrelevant to the comment.. Strange !

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I work with enterprise Dashboards alot, this is useful piece of information. Nice :)

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Thanks Vidhika.
Would love to know more about your work and if you are looking for some specific dashboard-based topic, would be glad to help :)

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Love this, could not ask for a better time. thank you!!

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Hi Jenine,
Thank you. Glad to know it helped. Are you working on some specific dashboard project currently? Let me know if you want me to write on some specific topic regarding an information dashboard...would be glad to help further.

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This is Awsome... Dashboard give the best picture of sale at one go...This article is really an "Must Read" across all the domains... Thank you Shilpi...

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Thanks Ashish :)

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Wow. Excellent article. I've stumbled upon this at a time when I've been tasked with creating a dashboard for an EMR software. This is such an insightful post and I'm particularly grateful to have come across this. Thank you Shilpi.

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Thanks Rohann. All the best for your dashboard!

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good one...
This article helps me a lot in redesigning my project...
cheers :)

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Thank you Sandeep. Glad to know it was helpful.

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Informative, well-written and easy to read while having a fairly detailed presentation. I like it!

I would add that psychology can also guide our design of the colors and fonts used in our dashboard pages. For instance, we know from color theories that using red on a financial dashboard should really only be when dire thresholds have been met... and never used in aesthetical design. As well, one would never use harder to read or festive fonts in a network management dashboard.

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Thanks Michael. Very true....human psychology should guide the choice of colors and fonts while designing a dashboard.

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Good article!

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Thanks Pedro. Glad you liked it :)

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Really enjoyed the article. I think dashboards will receive greater attention and more deliberate development in 2014. I've seen a number of ventures where the dashboard is really the key value proposition.

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Thanks Dan. Glad you enjoyed the article.
Very true...with businesses shifting to data-driven decisions, more and more ISVs would look to embed dashboards in their products to enhance its overall user experience and provide data-driven insights to users.

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Thanks for the Stitch Labs love, Shilipi. We really appreciate it. Here's the link to our website. http://www.stitchlabs.com/

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Hi Jake,
Stitch Labs fitted the context of my story well. Good luck!