Information design, dashboards, and balanced scorecards

Posted on 13 January 2008


The more I think about it, the more I strengthen my belief that an organization’s dashboard should serve to provide clear, intuitively graspable measures. This seems to me to imply that all of the data along the dashboard should be in indexed format, with the minima and maxima of the indices serving to conceptually bound in the data and arrange it so that your intuition can model what the data means. In this case, an organization’s dashboard will fit well in some ways and poorly in other ways to the analogy of a car’s dashboard; this is particularly true when considering instantaneous data versus a chronological plot.

Using the car dashboard analogy for briefing of an organization’s status by dashboard, one would wish to specifically target the active driver viewpoint, rather than the passive one. While a car designed for the passive operator (i.e. the appliance user, the willful Toyota Corolla driver) may feature the following data, organized roughly in this fashion…

2007 Toyota Corolla instrument cluster

1. ground speed (with harmfully limited precision, as it is used to ensure compliance with strict regulations)

2. engine speed (at least, on cars with manual transmissions–and frequently omitted with automatics)

2. a unitless (but usefully indexed) measure of coolant temperature, and

3. a unitless (but usefully indexed) fuel level, falling somewhere between E and F (or on an old BMW, somewhere between 0/1 and 1/1)

…it’s clear that the dashboard of a car designed for the more interested and involved driver would present greater detail that has been organized in a different fashion.

I believe that most would agree that running an organization requires efforts toward increased agility, decisiveness, and an ability to accurately consider the range of potential outcomes. To this end, consider what appears on a car dashboard in a car that is designed for the active driver (such as a Ferrari Formula 1 car, a Porsche Le Mans racer, or something assembled on a smaller scale for the weekend track racer, like a 911GT2, a Lotus Exige, or the Ariel Atom):

2008 Porsche 911GT2 instrument cluster
(Instrument cluster from the 2008 911GT2 brochure by Dr. Ing. h. c. F. Porsche, AG. Scanned image from

1. engine speed (the tachometer), serving as a proxy for engine power output, and followed in decreased importance by…

2. ground speed (smoothed to be usefully imprecise, as it is not regulated on the track, but its relative level is of importance for cornering!),

3. oil temperature in units,

4. coolant temperature in units,

5. fuel level (sometimes in volume units, or by weight),

6. turbo boost in units (if applicable, based on the engine’s type of aspiration ),

7. less frequently, brake bias, a chronometer for lap times, a g-force meter, etc. Often, these are set to the side of the dashboard.

The difference that is crucial here is that the information has been organized in terms of primacy, that it has been indexed by way of the gauge minima and maxima, that there are still units (which facilitate comparing small changes and differences across tools or organizational boundaries), and that both derivative data and non-derivative data are displayed.

What I mean is that the most relevant and controllable data is displayed; while the throttle position (5%, 10%, 73% ?) is not indicated, knowledge of its exact value is of less importance than knowledge of the effect it produces, which is engine speed, and thereby power output, and thereby ground speed. Further, throttle is intimately controllable via the foot pedal, so the relative position is already understood by the driver. A further gauge would add precision, but it would add little useful information to the driver’s situational awareness.

For further examples, see the photos below of the dashboards of several “active drivers’ cars”…

2007 Porsche 911 turbo instrument cluster
(Above: 2007 Porsche 911 turbo instrument cluster. Image from Yahoo! autos.)
2003 Ferrari 360

…and this example of how to beautifully include most of the data, but make it nearly incomprehensible.

2002 Lexus is300
(Above: 2002 Lexus is300 instrument cluster. Image by rwpeary.)
Good design is not universal; frequently, gimmicks crop up even in the most exclusive places. Bugatti chooses to provide a power gauge in its 1001 horsepower Veyron, to emphasize that very fact…

Bugatti power gauge
… and Rolls-Royce (actually, BMW) chooses to include a “power reserve” gauge, to emphasize how little of the engine’s potential is regularly put to use.

Rolls-Royce power reserve gauge

Neither of these gauges are particularly useful to the driver (but perhaps to the salesman!), because they tell the driver very little about the situation. With a little knowledge of the car’s peak engine output and what rpm this occurs at (as well as gear ratios) the gear changes will more accurately occur if the tachometer is consulted. Further, in modern cars, computer-managed emissions and traction control systems automatically modify throttle and fuel/air ratio, which will have an impact on power output that is not controllable by the driver. Again, these gauges add precision, but little useful information, to the driver’s situational awareness.

For more on this topic, find below links to a few blogs and sites for your perusal:

A beautiful site:

Joe Lamantia on The Challenge of Dashboards and Portals:

Typeface choice for low-contrast, high-halation, and short duration viewing:

Wikipedia on selected topics: The web is all about typography, period:

Prefuse: and

Dashboard Spy:

11 Questions Users Ask:

IBM ManyEyes Shared Visualization and Discovery:

PNL’s Starlight Information Visualization Technologies:

Ernst Haeckel’s Forms in Nature:

(linked from

Key Performance Indicators:

Information Aesthetics:

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