I wrote about Greg Farr‘s dashboards awhile back, his weekly airing out of the campus’ dirty laundry: non-attendance, discipline, drop-outs. “There are no secrets at Shannon,” Greg says. If I were ever to step into administration, implementing that kind of accountability would head my list of Things To Do Before I Ever Sat Down.
Here’s a sample dashboard, lifted from the school’s website
This particular accountability measure freaks me out, also, because it demands focused graphic design, which my longtime subscribers will recall is an incessant fixation of mine.
Unfortunately, Greg and his team have here what designers call a “low signal-to-noise ratio.” The information he’s trying to convey pulses faintly from the screen (low signal) while other design elements blare static around it (high noise).
In trying to determine a piece’s signal (and this applies to your conference slide deck, classroom PowerPoint slides, handouts, writing, public speaking, anything) ask yourself what is essential to the point and then separate the rest. (Or, as Queen Gertrude advised Polonius, “More matter, with less art.”)
In this case, the life blood of Greg’s design, the thing without which the dashboard would be nothing, is very small.
These tiny arrows constitute a faint signal. They force the viewer to work harder to determine meaning. A faint signal isn’t fatal, by any means, but a little obscurity compounds quickly over time.
The noisier elements of Greg’s design, I imagine, are obvious to both he and I. This is a fiendishly complicated project for a lot of reasons (listed below) and the solutions (listed even farther below) are not obvious.
- He’s dealing with totally different scales. Attendance is a continuous percentage. Discipline is measured by discrete incidents.
- Inconsistent indicators. High attendance is good but high discipline is bad. The same indicator for each carries with it opposing significance. Greg has attempted a workaround by reversing the attendance scale, which wasn’t a bad move.
- Each colored section (green, yellow, and red) measures a different range. The green zone for referrals is 3 units long; for non-completers and safety it’s 2 units long. This is almost certainly due to the fact that Greg and his team think that three referrals is less a cause for concern (threat level green) than three non-completers (threat level yellow). That ethical differentiation is pretty cool, though it’s also throwing up some unwanted noise.
So as we attempt a (totally unauthorized redesign) of Greg’s dashboards we try to amplify what matters and dampen what doesn’t. If this were a contract job, I’d be in constant contact with Greg and his team, asking them what they thought mattered. As is, this is totally presumptuous.
Here’s my draft:
- “Attendance” from the original had to become “absence.” Imagine two side-by-side pie charts comparing two candidates in an election. Imagine that one pie chart showed how many people did vote for Candidate 1 and the other chart showed how many people did not vote for Candidate 2 and you have an idea of how confusing this can get over the long haul. So everything is now defined as a negative. Low bars are good and high bars are bad all the way across the board.
- There is an exact count for each measurement to counterbalance the noisy scaling from the original. Each absence bar measures two percent (2%) and each of the other scales measures one (1) referral / withdrawn student / safety incident. It doesn’t really matter if the viewer knows that or not, however.
The strength of the colorful scale in both the original and the revision is its visual signal. (Red is bad!) However, Greg asked his visual signal to carry information on its back, whereas I pushed it off to the side letting them both do their separate jobs.
- Gradients. In a few years gradients are gonna fall out of design favor, at which point I’ll look back on this time of my life with a small cringe. For now, gradients modernize the original ever so slightly.
- A design that reflects the school’s brand. I’m probably the only Californian who knows that Greg’s district’s web server was down this last weekend. Once it came up, I pulled a color swatch from its website. Depending on who sees the dashboard, it’s a nice opportunity to enhance the Shannon Learning Center brand.
If I were Greg, I’d be wondering right now if this update is as easy to update as his original, where he just moves arrows side-to-side on the scale. A: Not quite, but close.
You start from a fully loaded original and delete the bars you don’t need.
If you want to animate the thing for extra credit, you create five slides. (Greg’s original looks like a PowerPoint file; mine’s out of Keynote.) The first has empty indicators; the second has an accurate first indicator; the third has an accurate second indicator, and so on.
Then you set the transition between each slide to a two-second left-to-right “wipe” and the result is something like a rising power meter. Keynote will export to QuickTime so you can play it on your school’s closed circuit tv network, if you’ve got one of those.
Easy, good-looking, high signal-to-noise ratio, here are the resources:
- Keynote [pretty!]
- PowerPoint [sigh!]
- QuickTime [the full effect!][qt:http://www.mrmeyer.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/shannonredux.mov 400 316]
- Thanks in advance, Greg, for being a good sport on this one. You’ve got a great thing running there.
- If you’re an administrator (or know one) who’d like to put Greg’s program into effect at your school (or district) I’d like to provide the design work for $free. Pass it on: dan at mrmeyer dot com.