What can automotive designers teach us about managing everyday information overload?
The Business of Dashboards
Most of us intuitively know what a dashboard is. We get in our cars, look down through the steering wheel, and there it is: dials and lights and symbols that keep us from running out of gas or getting a speeding ticket. When I worked in corporate America, the dashboard idea was extrapolated into the domain of business management. I used and worked on countless software artifacts that were described as ‘dashboards’. While some were useful, many were not. Nearly any good idea can be done to excess in the business world, and yet the underlying principles of dashboards make sense: for cars, for companies, and I believe, for individuals as well.
Data and Information
We often view information overload as a feature of modern life, yet human beings, like all organisms with the ability to perceive, have more data available to them in their environment than they can capture and process. In psychology, the process of selecting some data and rejecting other signals is called ‘attention’. Attention evolved in human beings through the ages and works well in the context where humans evolved. Naturally we pay close attention to threats, as well as opportunities for shelter, food, socialization, and sex. However, these basic preferences go numb in the face of 500 emails or a flurry of text messages.
In the modern context, attention requires deliberate management, since our old instincts will work marginally at best. In a nutshell, this is what a dashboard does: it structures attention. A dashboard puts what matters most front-and-center and marginalises what doesn’t matter. Another way to look at this distinction is to consider the difference between data and information. Data is the gale of raw facts howling through our perception. Information is data that has meaning. A good dashboard selects and rearranges data so it becomes information.
Attention is a resource that is always spent on something. If we don’t direct our attention with care, it will revert to its basic program, learned in the age of the hunter-gatherers. Worse still, there are highly-paid professionals committed to attracting our attention for their own ends: advertisers, managers, and politicians. It is no accident that news broadcasts and political speeches often play to our fears, since we attend most closely to threats. Advertisers mix sex with all sorts of products that have nothing to do with sex simply because they know sex is attention-grabbing. There’s no easy way to turn off our basic attentional settings, but we can remain mindful of how we’ll spend our attention and notice when others are exploiting that bias. A personal dashboard is our defense against ad men, politicos, and anyone else who would use our attention against us.
How does one construct a dashboard for their personal life? A good way to begin is to understand the principles real dashboards (automotive and corporate) utilize. Facts become important based on a number of properties. Facts needed for safety and success are always prominent on a dashboard. In nearly any car, the speedometer dominates the dash because it relates to safety and compliance with the rules of the road. Speedometers are often large for another reason: frequency. Speed varies from second to second, so drivers tend to check this gauge more than any other.
In our own lives, there are speedometer-equivalent facts that need tracking on a near-constant basis. Likely candidates are our finances, our job performance, our relationships or our most treasured goals. Making sure these items rise to our attention often can be as simple as taping a short message to ourselves on our bathroom mirror or as sophisticated as a document synchronized across multiple computers and a smart phone. No matter the technological underpinnings, the principle remains the same: get that information ‘up in your face’ where you can’t help but notice it.
In our cars, fuel gauges are just as important as speedometers, but rarely as large, and usually they’re placed off to the side. Why is this? Because even though the information is important, we don’t need to check it from second to second. This kind of information is important, but doesn’t need to ‘jump out’ at us quite as much.
On a personal dashboard, it is important to draw distinctions between important and frequent information (which goes front and center), and occasionally important (which is convenient but not attention-grabbing). Personal analogs of the fuel gauge might be regular medical appointments or lunches to check in with your boss. There’s no need to obsess as long as these items don’t fall off the radar altogether.
On the very periphery of dashboards live the warning lights. Most of the time they’re entirely invisible and only come on when some special condition needs the driver’s attention. Most fuel gauges are backed up with an attention-grabbing ‘low fuel’ light. Alerts and warnings stay out of the way until they are needed.
If only our lives came with warnings when we were about to make big mistakes. In fact, we can install warnings if we think things through in advance. Technology helps us build in reminders with a plethora of websites and apps that can remind us when our bank balance is low or our library books are nearly overdue. Socially, if we trust our friends, family and partners, we can listen to their feedback when they see us about to go astray.
Automakers are beginning to take heat for all the features crammed into their cars. If a vehicle includes a navigation system, Bluetooth phone integration, a satellite radio and a complicated heating and air-conditioning system, how much attention is left for driving? Some lawmakers are considering requiring cars to disable certain features (like text messaging on phones) when the car is in motion.
Similarly, it is all too easy to be beset with interruptions and distractions from a dozen directions. While you are able to know if you have a new email message, does it serve you to have your phone beep every time a new email arrives? What about Facebook, text messages, TV, or online games? The best dashboards are as simple as possible (but as Einstein said, “no simpler”). Every so often, it makes sense to go over what’s on your dashboard and remove less-important or irrelevant attention sinks.
Automotive dashboards have personalities. Muscle cars feature tachometers that proudly report engine RPMs. Economy-minded vehicles are more likely to include gauges estimating gas mileage. Meanwhile city drivers enjoy navigation systems that report upcoming traffic snarls.
In the same sense, your dashboard probably won’t look like my dashboard because we have different values and priorities. Over time, a good dashboard will change with the shifting needs and desires of the person using it. Modern life requires us to overcome our genetically-wired preferences for attention in order to focus on what really matters, which is ultimately a personal choice.