Thanks to the Dashboard Spy reader who reminded me of this excellent white paper titled “Dashboard Design for Real-Time Situation Awareness” by Stephen Few, author of Information Dashboard Design.

dashboard design whitepaper

You can download it here (direct pdf download):

Dashboard Design for Real Time Situation Awareness

Here is an excerpt:

Situation Awareness

Although not all situations require ongoing moment-to-moment awareness, the term “situation awareness” is normally reserved for situations that do. There is an excellent book about situation awareness and how to design systems to support it entitled Designing for Situation Awareness. It defines the term as follows:

Basically, situation awareness is being aware of what is happening around you and understanding what that information means to you now and in the future. This awareness is usually defined in terms of what information is important for a particular job or goal. The concept of situation awareness is usually applied to operational situations, where people must have situation awareness for a specified reason, for example in order to drive a car, treat a patient, or separate traffic as an air traffic controller.

(Mica R. Endsley, Betty Bolte, and Debra G. Jones, Designing for Situation Awareness: An Approach to User-Centered Design, 2003, Taylor and Francis, New York, page 13)

This term was first used in relation to military pilots, when aviation was still relatively new and the ability of pilots to keep track of what was going on around them was a matter of life or death. As the definition above suggests, this involves three levels of awareness:

  1. the perception of one’s environment,
  2. comprehension of its meaning, and
  3. the projection of that understanding into the future to anticipate what might happen.

A dashboard that is designed to support situation awareness must support all three levels of awareness. Failure in any of these areas will undermine the effectiveness of the dashboard. The entire weight of responsibility for the success or failure of the dashboard, however, does not fall on the dashboard alone. The person who uses the dashboard must thoroughly understand the domain. She must have already constructed a mental model of the domain into which the information derived from the dashboard can be rapidly integrated. A perfectly designed dashboard will not overcome her lack of expertise, and her expertise cannot overcome the failures of the dashboard to present information in a way that matches her mental model.