Digital Dashboard Feedback and Response

Writes John Robb on our Digital Dashboard mock-up: “You can see where this is going. A portal of one. All data on the desktop. Simple, easy to customize, and powerful.” What’s especially interesting are the comments received on John’s blog. I am reproducing them (with my comments added at the end of each of the comments) because they are a great source of new ideas.

(This feedback is so valuable, and its way beyond what I would have expected…My biggest learning from blogging has been that if one is open to sharing one’s ideas, one always gets back much more than what one gives. But one has to give from the heart.)

Robert Brown

Not to be a pain, but I’ve seen variations of this mock-up since 1996. The concept of a “digital dashboard” or a “personal portal” is fundamentally flawed, for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, most people already have such a tool, and it’s called the task bar. No matter how much multi-tasking you think is happening, your FOCUS is only ever on a single given thing at any moment. For a lot of users, what they’re FOCUSED on is maximized. The dashboard is merely the means to an end.

The end is the second problem: no chart or e-mail or calendar or search widget will ever be a viable replacement for the desktop application that’s doing the work behind the scenes. There tends to be significantly more hard drive space available on a given PC than there is screen real estate. We won’t pack (or even bother using) a Swiss Army knife when we’ve got room for a hunting knife, a screwdriver set, a small saw, a corkscrew, full-size tweezers, a box of toothpicks, etc.

Enterprise-wide, the logistics related to first getting, then managing and maintaining the integrity of various data sources required … yikes. Pie in the sky.

This is not to say that I don’t see a TON of value in getting more knowledge onto the desktop. I just don’t see it happening like this. Much better to just schedule a weekly reminder: “lunch with somebody who knows more stuff than me.”

Rajesh’s response: Robert, I agree with you that we focus on the task that is maximised on the screen. In a way,that is why we need the dashboard. It is much more than just links. Its a snapshot (the facade) of many apps running in their own windows. We need to get the big picture. By having to click multiple times, we tend not to do it many times. The dashboard tries to aggregate things so that one can get an overviewin a (near) real-time environment much more rapidly. On your second point, a clarification: the calendar, etc. seen are the front-ends of the actual apps…for example, clicking on the calendar would take one into Evolution (or the email client). No point rewriting apps that exist and the users are comfortable in. But at the backend, use a common database and web services to present information together and cross-linked.

Jevon MacDonald

Hey, RKB said it for me. We do need to get more knowledge onto the desktop, but it has to be under the guise of some sort of systematic delivery. Think, an employee gets in to work for a good day of sales/programming or whatever. But we are dealing with a brittle person in the morning. You can’t throw everything at them at once, the same goes for after lunch and just before they are off for the day.

Information needs to flow to an employee (or anyone) when they are ready for it. Otherwise, concentration is a crackshot at what they can manage to sneak into their brains.

Rajesh’s response: Jevon, we need to do one task at a time, but the number of tasks and the “flows” that we need to manage are much more than what they were a few years ago. So, the flow is what we need to see…and that will help us decide which task we need to focus on. The dashboard also helps provide the wider context for what we need to do.

Patrick Logan

I agree pretty much with these sentiments: the real issue is access to information that is timely, accurate, meaningful. Presentation is secondary. Certainly having an email channel and a weblog channel on the same screen is not what’s important. It’s having the right piece of information available when it is needed, with little effort.

Rajesh’s response: Patrick, I think presentation will (in fact, is) important. Because screen space in front of us is limited to 15-inches or 17-inches, we need to show much more in a limited area. I agree that the right info needs to be available at the right time. What the dashboard is doing is putting a layer across the various apps that the user needs to interact it so that the info flows are tracked in near real-time….I see email and weblogs (K-logs) as increasingly becoming part of the same collaboration process that we do at work and in personal lives. The K-logs become personal knowledge management systems (a third memory as it were, after our own and Google).

John Robb (to the rescue):

I understand what you guys are saying but…

1) The composite app run as a dynamic desktop website is really what I was after here. Flexible UI in the browser = low customization costs. The real difference between 5 years ago and today is that much of the glue necessary to put this together has been agreed upon.

2) The success of myYahoo proves that a dashboard like concept is very popular among average users. It may not appeal to power users.

3) Composite apps like this can crack open classic heavy client apps that are in many cases too complex to use (if you have used Siebel, you know what I mean). Also, the ability to customize the data displayed is the key to extending access to everyone in the enterprise.

4) A dashboard is basically a personal portal to other more focused web apps. It isn’t where you do most of your work, it is where you get your 50,000 ft view of what is going on.

It may be that this is impossible to sell to a wide audience in the US in that we have too much legacy code in place. As a result, this is likely a leapfrog opportunity for the developing world.

Rajesh’s response: John, you’ve once again captured the big picture very well. In fact, I’d take the argument further: the dashboard (and not the apps) will become the launchpad to the actual work areas for the next set of users – just like the My Yahoo analogy. Its what less savvy users are likely to see first. We are seeing a new set of tools becoming available which can better help us manage information for the users who have little legacy and proprietary formats to worry about. These users need integration, and its possible to do it because one can now provide the entire suite of web services-enabled apps on a common backend XML store. It is like, how in the earlydays of the Internet, Yahoo leapfrogged over the Lexis-Nexis and Dialogs of the world when it came to presenting news for the mass market.

Michael Bernstein

I too have some criticisms of this particular mockup, but I also feel that some of the other critiquers missed an important point, which I’ll get to.

1) The email inbox summary is kind of pointless, at least as long as a significant percentage of email is spam. With a good spam filtering solution, and with a network of K-Logs in the company cutting down on useless email, such a summary *might* be useful, but I’d still be skeptical.

2) The RSS Aggregator and the ‘post to weblog’ windows should be unified.

3) similarly, I think the ‘Favorite URLs’ is a bit pointless. I *have* a bookmark file.

Now, here is what I think the other critiquers missed: The summary report. This is a great idea, particularly if I can blog a snapshot with a single click. And, contrary to Patrick’s opinion, presentation *is* important, as it largely determines *how* we absorb information. So, having those reports rendered as a graph so you can see what the trend is would be great too. There are plenty of ways to visualize data, and different people need different aspects of the data emphasized. This is where personalization can really shine.

Survey results, economic indicators, network traffic, weather reports, stocks, server load, google queries, sales figures, Amazon sales ranks (specific books, categories, keywords), customer service calls, bugs per LOC, product returns…

It’s all grist for the mill. And the only way you can characterize the stuff you *really* need to know, is that it’ll jump out at you as being out of the ordinary, and you’ll know it when you see it.

Let people choose the stuff they’re watching, and make sure they can blog it when they come across something they feel merits attention.

Now, *that’s* a dashboard I’d want to use.

Rajesh’s response: Michael, good suggestions. The idea is to provide a snapshot, and then let the respective apps take over. For example, as one sees a new email come in, clicking on it or the Inbox will bring the user’s favourite Email Client to the fore (or launch it). It is also possible to value-add to the Favourite bookmarks (for example, remind you that perhaps you last visited the site a week ago and it is now time for a visit)….The Summary Report with a 1-click post-to-blog would be nice, indeed….the blog becomes my memory….On the presentation side, one idea I have is to take the data presented and switch to OpenOffice (use it as a computation /presentation engine) – this is possible because OO uses XML for its storage, and to make OO 2-way, have a post-to-blog from OO.

John Robb

Exactly: Make every bit of data I have or can get access to something I can publish in my k-log.

Matthew A. Schneider

I have to go with John Robb on this one. I think some of the comments are a bit too narrowly focused. Step back and get the 50,000 ft view, because that is indeed what it’s all about.

Also, John’s point about the glue now being available is salient. I remember being excited about the prospect of a “dashboard” (or whatever it was called) back around ’97.

Good work Rajesh.

Rajesh’s response: Matthew, thanks! I was waiting for some compliments!! Yes,John is right – much of the glue is now available, and in fact, even more so on a Linux platform with server-centric computing because all the data is stored there and is accessible to other programs. They key is, that just like blogs make the web 2-way, web services and open file/storage formats can make apps 2-way.

Dan Sickles

The dashboard/portal and full applications are not mutually exclusive. Think of the dashboard as the desktop. It would be far more valuable than the icons, folders and Start buttons. It just presents you with the latest, most useful can drill down from there.

If you read the other pieces in the series (, you’ll see that this is just a front end to a proposed open source stack. This is a valuable exercise. With MS building the next file system on an XML db, Windows will also look more like this.

Rajesh’s response: Dan, thanks for the pointer. We had done the Digital Dashboard mock-up a few weeks ago. Recently, I wrote up a much more elaborate series on “Rethinking the Desktop” (the columns are available here, in reverse chronology).

Jevon MacDonald

My previous company had implemented a dashboard model under Microsoft’s Sharepoint Teamshare server a few years ago. What I came to see what that the model wasen’t working as far as helping us flow between taking in and putting out our teams knowledge, I started to see things more in terms of flows. Inflows, Interflows and Outflows.

Rajesh’s response: Great set of terms – Inflows, Interflows and Outflows. In fact, that is exactly what the dashboard does: captures flow. Here’s a live example of flow: John Robb points to my mock-up and I get an “ideas flow” and here I am providing a flow back. Events in the enterprise are part of this flow, and the dashboard provides a moving representation of the same.

We’ve been working on implementing this in our organisation. Hopefully, within the next week, I’ll be able to show a better view of what we’ve been doing. The UI will have changed somewhat. But the ideas remain the same. In fact, one of the things I’ve been thinking of adding (like how Reuters has it on their trading screen for breaking news) is an “Events Headlines” which would show by time the changes and events happening which I have subscribed to (a bit like the scrolling news tickers, but in a time-ordered format in a small window). Scopeware has this notion of time-ordering information, but they take up the whole desktop- in this case, it would just be a small window. More in the coming week.

Breaking News: Jevon’s Mockup

A neat alternative mock-up.

Writes Jevon:

I went ahead and made a mockup of how I see my work life coming together. It’s about things flowing in, then I leverage what I have to interact with them if I need to, then I send information out. These “Inflows” and “Outflows” are exaggerated in this mockup, but it makes my point, and that is that there are friendlier ways of taking the information to people than to hold them above it by their belt. I feel more comfortable wading through it, in a smoother fashion.

There is so much room to add useful things in this mockup, all sorts of space. It’s only about 800px wide, and it makes good use of those pixels. You could have 3 times the inflow and it would work well, then you would get into some categorization and viewflow. This design is accomplishing as much as a bulky dashboard system might, and I think it is not only more pleasant, but it allows for information to move. move. move. It is simple enough I know, but it works for me.

Jevon, this is a super design. I like the in/out-flows organisation very much. I still feel that one will perhaps need to see much more information but I guess that is possible using outlines (as you have done), and the user can decide how much needs to be visible. Very aesthitically pleasing.

Maybe what we could do (since we are doing the dashboard development in our organisation) is to actually try this design (along with ours) out in a live environment, and get some real feedback from users.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.