Update: See Dashboards as Navigation for more about using digital dashboards to navigate through information.

Dashboards work brilliantly as navigation devices.  So much so, as a matter of fact, that the dashboard has become a commonly used design pattern for the browsing of databases.

Usability experts will tell you that very specific navigation models exist. One very straight-forward model of navigation involves searching for something you know you want to find. The “Known Item Finding” search model assumes that the searcher knows about the thing he wants to find. To accomodate this model, dashboard designers will offer a search facility. This will be form based and usually consist of alternate complexity levels – i.e. a search box on the top of each page of the dashboard with a “go” button next to it and a link to an “advanced search” or a “power search” button.

Another search model is known as “Browsing”. In this case, the user doesn’t have a known item in mind, but will let the search process refine the search. Here, the value is in presenting categories and sample values and letting the user browse to an ultimate asset.

The “dashboard as navigation” school of thought certainly follows this latter model. The idea is to present a smorgashboard of content that allows for drill-down linking into content or across categories until the user finds what she is interested in. Dashboards facilitate this sort of learning by browsing.

Let’s look at an example of using a dashboard as a browsing navigation tool to examine a database.

The Marvel Database tracks all things having to do with Marvel Comics:

Marvel Comics Database Dashboard

Yes, it’s kind of plain and straight-foward, but you know what? If you are a Marvel Comics fan, the categorization really speaks to you. One look at the portlets and you know that you are among friends. The stage is set for browsing the data in terms that you understand. Take a look at the next dashboard screenshot to see something a little more visually interesting: