698 Seconds - why less is more when designing your dashboard

Tuesday 09 January 2018


698 seconds - that’s all it took for Apollo 11 to get into orbit. Just under eleven minutes to take three astronauts and about 100,00lbs of spaceship from the launch site at the Kennedy Space Centre to 160 miles above the Earth’s surface, and on to the Moon. However, to say “just eleven minutes” is to understate the engineering accomplishment of NASA and the courage of the astronauts. We have NASA to thank for many inventions that we now use everyday: cordless vacuums, digital photography, freeze drying, even the memory foam mattress owes its existence to NASA. So, what else has NASA got to teach us? Well as it turns out, a lot, but today I want to talk about dashboards!

Back in 2014, I had the privilege of taking part in the 100 Year Starship program, a joint NASA and DARPA project about fostering the technology for a manned mission to the stars beyond our solar system. I worked with the incredibly inspiring astronaut Mae Jemison – the first African American woman in space. While working on the project I got to meet a range of different NASA scientists and astronauts dating back to the Apollo era, all with their own incredible and mind-bogglingly heroic anecdotes about the reality of developing a space program. I was actually at NASA Johnson and Rice University for the 50th Anniversary of Kennedy’s “we choose to go to the Moon” speech. In fact I stood at the same podium to give my short address.

One of the lessons that still can be learnt from the experiences of the Apollo astronauts concerns the display systems on the Apollo Command Module, how do you get across the scores of detailed and complex information to the astronauts such that they can react to it during the eleven minute ride into orbit and the constant potential for catastrophe.

The first design had lots of traditional dials that displayed the levels of all of the different variables. But these were impossible to read with the vibration of the ship during take off. Too many small, shaking dials, that were of no use to the astronauts.

Following on from this, NASA made the leap to digital displays, red like the seven section characters on a '70s digital watch… but these displays had the same problem, they were unreadable at take-off.

Then came the traffic light system, green lights that turned to amber, and then to red when an issue occurred. While this was an improvement over the dials in that the astronauts could see these displays, the sheer volume of information being screamed at the astronauts by a few Christmas trees worth of lights scattered across the dash made it difficult to identify meaningful information in the clutter. At this point, someone asked, 'what’s the point of a green light showing’s everything’s OK?'

The amber traffic light also raised an interesting question, in that for the vast majority of these amber warnings, there was not much the crew could do to correct it and it ultimately created more confusions and chaos for the astronauts to work through. Does an astronaut really want to know there may be a problem?

Ultimately the solution that NASA reached was to have only one type of light, a red light, that would only switch on when the crew needed to be alerted to something, slimming down the clutter of information going to the crew allowing them to focus on the task at hand.

This insight is something I have extended to business today. We spend a lot of time helping clients with implementing dashboards and decision support systems. This is about identifying the key insight in the clutter of information, like the red light on the Apollo control panel. When you can see the problem clearly it allows you to see a clear path to overcoming it, this is something I try to communicate to our employees and clients when working on their dashboards, you have to take out the clutter, the information that isn’t mission critical. You can go more detailed on the ‘deep-dive’ screens, but managers and the C-suite need to see at a glance what is going wrong so they can articulate an informed response.

For businesses, the price of missing an important piece of insight because you were moving too quick to see it, or because it was lost in all the noise of information, may never match the consequences of a space crew missing something during the 698 second ride into space. However, there are still real consequences of missing key information and failing to react.

Dashboard design is about communicating the most essential information in the simplest possible way to enable decision support. For your business, it may not be possible to reduce it just to a red light, but I’m sure the answer is not the jumble of bar charts, pies and squiggles I see at countless companies.

James Walker, Partner and Global Head of Analytics

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