What is a dashboard?

When we started this project I noticed that we didn’t really have a common working definition of a dashboard, we talk about DWM and the dashboard as 2 separate things and as one and the same thing so I wanted to create a definition that we can share across marketing, design and engineering.

It’s easy to claim that you have the best dashboard software when you haven’t taken the time to define what a dashboard is, what is does and what is means to our users. Without a clear definition of a dashboard its difficult to design what one might look like

Communicating data

The ‘Dashboard’ is the new name for an kind of information design that has been around since the 80’s. Back then dashboards were known as ‘Executive Information Systems’ (EIS), They were designed for executive office use only, handled only a small amount of financial information and were designed so that “even an executive could understand”.


The 90’s saw the arrival of new approaches to management that involved key identifiers and KPI were born. Design and Technology responded by attempting to represent these new metrics in graphical interfaces.

They have had many names: Dashboards, scorecards, business intelligence tools (BI tools), distributed control systems (DCS), online analytical processors (OAP)



So what do they all have in common? All dashboards are about measuring: time, distance, speed, value, performance etc. We could start here by agreeing on some common features: Multiple charts, traffic light systems, gauges, dials, metres etc. But above all else, an effective dashboard is about clear communication.

We charge them with the responsibility of providing us with an awareness of the facts. Think of a dashboard as an information display that is designed to help our users maintain ‘situational awareness’. 


Situational awareness Is a term that comes for the military. Pilots would use dashboards on missions where the details around them were unfolding fast and they’d need to make smart decisions, fast.

Situational awareness works on three levels:

  1. Perception of the elements of the environment - Ability to see and clearly access all the information needed for a particular job 

  2. Comprehension of the current situation - relationships between the different types of data allows users to make sense of their situation

  3. Projection of future status - Once grounded future projections become more appealing 

For a dashboard to help users maintain situational awareness, it must be carefully designed in a way that makes it easy and efficient to perceive, understand and - if necessary - respond.