Better Dashboards

Given enough time, every application ends up with two things, email functionality and dashboards. While we’ll probably talk about email in a later episode, dashboarding is something we all encounter from time to time. It has a lot of the irritating features of reporting (and sometimes, your reporting engine has dashboarding capabilities), along with at least some of the annoying bits from developing an application. Not only do you have to worry about multiple devices, potentially widely disparate user requirements, and trying to make a useful user interface, but you actually have to ask deeper questions about why various parts of the business NEED certain information and determine how to get it (if you can).

A good dashboard will serve as a landing page for many of your application’s users, giving them critical information to support their work and help them make better decisions. Dashboards might show current system stats, trends over time, or even projections of future state based on both. Like reports, a helpful dashboard can drastically reduce the amount of work they have to do, help them catch mistakes before they become expensive, and even help with planning. However, unlike reports, users often want to interact dynamically with the dashboard, drilling down into interesting data, or possibly even creating custom visualizations of that data.

But there are downsides as well. Creating a useful dashboard involves more than just a pretty design layout and some random statistics about the system. You’re going to have to dig to figure out what SHOULD be on the dashboard as well as what shouldn’t be. Because your dashboard is often a landing page, you are going to have to take great care to make sure that it doesn’t harm system performance, while making sure that it is responsive. You’ll also find that people have very different expectations of a dashboard than they do of the rest of the application, and you’ll often find people using your dashboard who don’t do anything else in the system at all.

Designing usable dashboards is not necessarily difficult, but it is slightly different than designing regular application screens. The user’s intentions are different here and are sort of a cross between reporting and “normal” application use. However, if you keep a few simple things in mind, you can design a halfway decent dashboard without going crazy or spending days fighting with css.

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