Data Visualization Linguistics / Interpreting & Visual Language / Tableau

An Interpreter’s Approach to Dashboard Design

TDG_sign Mode

Designing a dashboard is a lot like interpreting.  And anyone who has ever worked with an interpreter knows we try to blend in with the scene.  If we could just disappear into the wallpaper and emulate the print, we would.  If we could convince everyone around us that we were mere figments of the imagination, you know, that child in the mirror that’s not really there, yeah, you’re onto me…you’re just dreaming.

Tableau poltergeist analyst
Nothing to see, ma!

But, here’s the rub.  We do exist.  We are there.  And weird things like who we are, the type of day we’ve had (yeah, that speeding ticket), and a whole lot of other things are affecting this interpretation. You see, contrary to popular belief, interpreting is not word for word; it’s meaning for meaning, with some remedying for the cultural baggage everyone brings.  It’s listening for weird things like intent, emotion, and tone and looking at our surroundings.  It’s identifying things about the speakers – accent, slang, regionalisms, and even attire – that paint the interpretation.  What are the roles each person is playing?  A doctor-patient encounter looks very different than two friends conversing.  In fact, with two friends, I may not even know what I’m interpreting, because, you know, we’re just like that one time a while ago…yeah, exactly!  (Wanna sound smart with your friends tonight?  That’s called ‘intimate register’.)

Deaf goodbye

So, how does this even relate to dashboard design?! When I was first learning to interpret, I did what everyone else did: I tried to stay within the lines.  You know them well.  You say to the kid, “oh, how pretty, you colored within the lines!”  And the kid smiles, takes the picture, and makes 100 more like it, right?  No.  They go draw on the wall, or knock paint on the carpet because life just looks better with more color NOT in the lines.  With interpreting, this is trying to find that 1:1 match for each sentence.  It’s ugly and it just gets you nowhere when the languages are so diametrically opposed to each other.  (Spanish interpreters, you’re angry; Arabic interpreters, I hear you cheering right now.  My fellow ASL interpreters are just going “Yep.”)

That Deaf Guy _ Turkey
Warning to the sign-impaired: this is a Deaf joke, NOT a real sign.

It’s the same thing with making business dashboards.  We learn we must fit into a particular format: locked in, laser-eyed focus, THAT target only.  And so we do.  And we do again.  And unlike our friend, the child, we DO replicate this over and over and over until our glassy-eyed analyst faces droop and our fingers go numb from typing and dragging the same charts.  We let our creative voice go hoarse from yelling and we zone out deep into the Star Wars Galaxy with Han Solo. But, at some point, we have an awakening.  We hunger for more and we hunt up the great vizards of the world and realize, we too, want to go to the Hogwarts of Dashboard design.  But Hermione, no magic spell will save you here.  Harry learned, it wasn’t magic; it was knowledge that was already within.  And guess what kids, same with dashboard design.


It’s not about the colors.  It’s not about the chart.  It’s not about the arrangement or the font or whole host of other things.  It’s ALL of these things and something more.  It’s about refining the question right down to brass tacks and understanding the goal of the ONE person who really has to use this dashboard.  It’s getting that ONE person in focus, so close you can see the furrowed brow, the finger on the screen, the pursed lips telling you that this dashboard is either hit or miss.  Let’s aim for a hit.

Now, when I was interpreting, I’d watch other interpreters.  I’d analyze every motion they made, every expression, every sign, every word choice, and even every pause.  I tried to get into their head, to understand why they did what they did.  And, I had the pleasure of working with some real top-tier interpreters, so that helped for sure!  And, I came to notice that those who’d grown up fluent in America Sign Language did things differently, so I watched these choices even closer.  And I watched how the clients responded to them.  What I noticed was when interpreters went closer to true ASL constructs, the better the interpretation seemed to go.  Guess what?  It meant waiting for a few sentences, doing a build around an entire idea, and finishing while listening for the rest.

That Deaf Guy _ Horror Flick

Yep, predictable direction: you knew where this was going. For dashboard design, I follow a lot of the same constructs as the interpreting process.  I listen to the message, usually coming from my audience.  What are they trying to do?  What limits do they have?  If they spoke “data,” how would they say it?  I then begin forming my message.  I evolve it as I hear more, go back and change things, and know that nothing is truly permanent.  It’s a living document, not a fixed translation.

So, how does this process really work?  Let’s start with an example from this week.  Andy Cotgreave went through it earlier this week with a design dashboard exercise.  It’s really hard to do these things without an actual person demanding to use it.  Just like all those sales demos I had to interpret…(YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE).  Now, he invited people to put their spin on it.  And that’s what I did – an alternate view on it.  Not a critique, or an assessment, just a simple spin that tried to keep true to the original messages conveyed by both dashboards.  So, please don’t take the following as a critique, but rather my approach to my rendition and a simple exercise merely for me to improve.  Really, those cats deserve kudos for their work, even if it included pink (I forgive you).

Now, initially, the goal of the dashboard (as I saw it, which I could be totally wrong) was to show how to format something quickly.  It changed to address meaningful storytelling and trying to determine what could and couldn’t be removed.  My focus was to integrate beauty as meaningful design, as I felt the correction tried to separate the two.

The first thing I did was try to figure out what this thing was telling me.  I even broke out sticky notes to figure out what was really important.  (Danger Will Robinson, Danger!  If you’re looking for brilliance, SEEK A DIFFERENT BLOG IMMEDIATELY!  This blog is more like Toddlers and Tableau.)  In ASL, we’ve done things called “discourse mapping,” which is just a fancy term for drawing pictures for the main concepts in a dialogue.

That Deaf Guy _ Book

Once I had an idea, I wanted to keep true to the original intent of the dashboard, which meant I ultimately kept all original metrics intact.  I merged sales and profit, as I felt together they were more meaningful.  I made sales bars because, ready for it, I was going to make them a filter at the end.  Really, that was my decision-making process there.  I then put the totals at the end, because they were totals for the whole time displayed and having them at the top felt too illogical for my brain.  They were a culmination, thus needed to culminate to the right (you can blame the sign for adding – in this context, I’d add to the right, though you can change it almost any way you like….sort of like Tableau and window calcs, but I digress…).

I tried to wrap my head around the heat map, regular map, and stacked 100% bar chat.  It didn’t feel right grammatically (again, as someone who signs, there’s whole layer of semantics around setup).  I felt I’d go to the map first of those 3 (SHINY!).  So, I swapped the first two.  Now, I had a time series at the top that would be my filter, the map, the heat map creating a shared space with the regular map, and the stacked 100% bar.  The upper right seemed not to tell me the story, so I switched that to area to focus more on the motion and less on the actual details.

Next was color.  As an ASL interpreter, I’ve had lots of training on color, and colors that SHOUT.  My first ASL class at the college level, I arrived wearing a zig-zag print shirt with shades of brown, green, and blue for a test that would be video-taped.  Ever try to watch moving hands over crazy patterns?  Some can be migraine- or vertigo-inducing.  It’s a rather mean thing to do overall and assault by color is real.


I wanted to focus more on the shape of the data and for the attention to go to the lines, movement, and context of the data.  Color needed to drop in a large way.  I also wanted it to align to all the metrics in use, since I had so many. So, blue became sales; green, profit; and grey, quantity.  I needed the logical order for my brain (Spock is my idol, Sheldon a close second).  I also had to differentiate categories, so I found something that highlighted the major dip in furniture.  I tried to stick with greenish (since we were handling profit) without going overboard.

For titles, I wanted to minimize them while highlighting the fact they were indeed titles.  I played with fonts and aimed for consistency.  I tried to keep them from distracting at my audience as well (despite the casing).  Since the original had totals, I tried to keep those in there as well, but wanted to reduce the noise and culminate to the right (grammatical in my mind).

I had a mostly complete dashboard, sans actions…I thought.  I clicked on state and wouldn’t you know, the whole thing filtered.  So, I went to The Noun Project, found an icon, and let others know the thing I didn’t: this thing filters here.  Since this blog is for Tableau Toddlers, I need that kind of direction.  Selfishly, that icon is for me, not you.  You’re smarter than I am.

So, that’s how an interpreter builds a dashboard.  It’s meaning-centric in a way that meets the needs of the target audience.


I hope that’s beautiful and functional.

Side note: the comics featured in this are drawn by Matt Daigle, a Deaf comic.  Go read and enjoy!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *