Dashboard Design from Airplanes to Business Intelligence

One fun fact about our BI team at Solve is that we have a number of pilots who are also BI Data Geeks. We currently have 4 pilots – all in our Wisconsin office. After several flights last year and some encouragement from Larry Overstreet, Jordan Anderson, Kevin Willoughby & Kent Shook I’ve gotten the flying bug. So now I’m hoping to be the first pilot in our Chicago office.

On my 50th birthday I took a “discovery” flight in a Cessna 172. One of the first things I noticed in the cockpit was the dizzying and confusing array of components on the dashboard. Especially as compared to the Piper SportCruiser which I hope to fly in as I move from ground school to actually flying.

The Cessna 172, introduced in 1955, has a vast array of dials & gauges which require quite a bit of head and eye movement to take them all in.

Instrument Panel

Cessna 172 Panel

The Piper SportCruiser, introduced in 2006, has a much more streamlined and integrated dashboard.

Piper SportCruiser

Piper SportCruiser Glass Panel

While its obviously not fair to compare these dashboards over a 51 year period, it’s fun to point out some design concepts that apply to both cockpit design and BI Dashboard design.

1. Simplicity is a concept espoused by almost everyone who talks about effective dashboard design principles. “Less is more” is a great phrase to remember in that it helps the Analyst and the Pilot focus on what the most important gauges are while flying or doing “Business Discovery”. Whether the KPIs are Revenues, Margin or Rate of Returns vs Airspeed, Altitude or Rate of Descent – effective design puts your key indicators up front and center to let you focus on the job at hand.

2.  Use of Colors is another key component and is similar across both domains. “Green good”, “Red Bad” as one of our clients recently said. Good BI and cockpit dashboards make it easy for the analyst or pilot to know whether they are doing well or if they are in a dangerous place. 

3.  Light, Clean, Simple – If you looked at the Cessna 172 vs the Piper SportCruiser you saw the difference immediately in the roughly 20+ small dials that look just about the same on the Cessna vs the 2 large integrated digital displays on the Piper. Dashboards should provide a smooth flow of information from the underlying data into the operator’s brain. The less jumping around from object/indicator to the next the better.

4.  Use of Alerts – A good dashboard shouldn’t just provide raw data to sift through. It should alert the analyst or pilot to critical conditions that are meaningful and actionable. Whether its low inventory leading to a stock-out situation and potentially lost sales (and customers) – or a stall warning indicator that could put your plane into a deadly spin, your dashboard should be looking out for you.

5. The “black box” – A final aviation to BI comparison might be to contrast traditional business reporting to how Business Intelligence works. We find end of month, quarter or yearly reporting to be like the “black box” on an airline. It’s all well and good to get the data that was collected and reviewed at the end of a period, but by that time the crash may already have occurred. BI dashboards are like the airplane cockpit dials in that they can give you real time (or close to it) feedback so that you can take corrective actions before it’s too late.   

Whether you’re an executive or analyst doing “Business Discovery” or a “Pilot in Command” of an aircraft – you deserve the best designed tools available to keep you from danger and help you achieve peak performance.

Team Solve

Business intelligence is our passion. We thrive to help you grow your business through solving critical problems by using data. The team behind this passion is made up of all walks of life, and we all have the same drive to help you find new solutions to old problems.