Dashboard Design from Deep within the Brain: It’s Really Like Driving a Car

I recently read a book, The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, and he talked about his experience learning to drive, particularly a manual.  If you’ve ever driven a manual, then you remember that starting out it like trying to rub your belly, pat your head, jump on one foot, and turn your head nonstop.  If you don’t get dizzy and fall over, I applaud you.

In it, Carr discusses explicit and tacit knowledge.  Both are learned.  Explicit knowledge is where it can be easily described and broken up.  It’s often how we learn Tableau.  To make a bar chart, drag sales to columns and regions to row.  To make a % of total, select the carat on sales and select Quick Tableau Calculation / Percent of Total.  Driving a car is tacit knowledge, which is why we find ourselves screaming at new drivers to hit the brake or make a turn or not do 900 obviously dangerous things that seem simple to us.  C’mon kids, even Google can do it.


Tacit knowledge touches all kinds of areas of the brain for good reason: it often uses a number of skills all at once.  An artist working in clay has knowledge on the feel of the clay, the consistency needed for the project, the vision for shape, and the amount of pressure to apply.  Someone driving has to think about their hands, feet, feel of the gas pedal for speed, location of the pedals, speed of other cars, direction in roadway, car fit in the lines, lyrics to songs, and not checking that text message.  The last bit is hard – real hard.

When we start making dashboards, we may often start by relying on explicit knowledge.  We may use other dashboards or reports, we may cobble together some charts, and through feedback from disgruntled users, we make changes.  Then, slowly something starts shifting.  We start using tacit knowledge to build.


Dashboard making is both an art and a science.  Don’t believe me?  Check out the amount of work Maureen Stone and others put into colors for the latest version of Tableau.  Jewel Bright comes from Jewel Loree’s David Bowie viz, a complete work of art in Tableau.  Science may have adapted the colors slightly, but the variation, the shades, and the cohesion are pure art.  More than just color, things like chart selection, placement, filters, flow, and overall user interface all influence the making of a great dashboard.

It’s why, as users become more proficient, they have a harder time describing the process.  It’s built from deep within the brain.  The brain is a terrifying and deeply misunderstood organ.  It’s grey, spongy, and wrinkled.  It’s also where the magic happens.


As we design more dashboards, the rules formalize.  We know, with overall good accuracy, when to make an unprotected left turn when driving. Most of us can get a good sense how fast a car is going.  We do this with dashboards, whether it’s how charts are placed, the graphs we use, or colors.

If we go back to learning to drive the manual, we didn’t start out hot-rodding it.  No, usually we were stalled in some neighborhood or on our way to the store.  If we were smart (don’t look this direction), we stayed off the freeway (keep lookin’ over there).  We banged our way through it, slowing getting it and grinding gears and denting bumpers in the mean time.  At some point, we got it (and a new car, because NO ONE wants that transmission now, for sure)!

If you survived life without ever learning to drive a manual, then here’s your checklist:

  1. Make sure to buy a beater.  Extra points if its a Nissan truck older than you and it takes all your might to shift.  Quadruple points if its a 4-on-the-floor (think International Harvester Scout, but go back to the ’60’s.).
  2. Figure out where reverse is (hint – it seems like a really stupid spot at first – especially if it’s the dead of winter and a very old Nissan).
  3. Use neutral to back out from driveways.  Be sure to hit the mailbox.
  4. Stall out in 3rd gear.  It’s loads of fun.
  5. Forget to shift out of first.  Wonder why the car seems to be struggling.  (Hint – it’s that really small gear on your bike that’s great for uphill, but ridiculous anywhere else.)
  6. Stall out on a hill.  Make sure the person behind you is on your bumper and let off the brake.  Extra points if its a really nice car and the person looks like they’re late to work.
  7. Forget to engage the clutch and make sure it grinds real nice.  Like coffee grinds nice.
  8. Get bold enough to go on the freeway.  Make sure to stall out there.

Dashboard design isn’t that different.  Some ideas to make it easier:

  1. Find some great dashboard examples.  For some places, this can mean calling in a consultant (yes, I know, we’re scary – more on this at another time).  Others can borrow good drivers, er, dashboard authors from other places.  You can also look at non-relevant dashboard examples and get ideas.
  2. Understand what makes them great.  If you watch a professional race car driver, pay attention to their eyes, how little they move, how they hold the steering wheel on turns (you’d be surprised at how little this is adjusted throughout the turn when possible), and notice how they shift and when they slow down.  Same thing with dashboards.  It’s not just the charts, but where, what it does, and what everything achieves together.  Save a copy, move stuff.  Does it make a difference?  Take a chart off and adjust stuff.  Is it still good?  Change a chart or 2.  What did that do to it?
  3. Don’t get so attached.  If you’ve ever thrown a pot (clay, kids, not chucking garden supplies) and just put that little bit of pressure in a wrong spot, you know how the whole thing folds in?  Yup, time to start over.  Recognize when it’s just going to be easier to try again.  Good news, it’s a dashboard.  You kick off some charts and try again.  Not like head gaskets that you have to scrape off and spend eons making sure they’re right.
  4. Try different things.  If you keep stalling out at the sample place, avoid that place for a bit until you get a better rhythm.  If it gets really bad, hit Save then close.  Go outside, walk around, come back in, and open a new workbook.  Try something different, then go back to the other one.
  5. Reuse something old.  Sometimes, it’s really not happening.  You know what, it happens.  Reduce, reuse, and recycle.
  6. Call in a lifeline.  Stick a placeholder there and ask someone you’re allowed to ask.  Chances are, if you’re making it, someone else will be using it.  Ask them what they think.

Starting out is painful, but at least you know you can blame your brain and that, at some point, the knowledge will quite literally sink in.  Happy vizzing.

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