Designing a dashboard? Look to airplane cockpits for cues

  • BLOG
  • July 30th, 2019

When I was a child and took a flight with my parents, the most exciting part of the trip was always getting the chance to see the cockpit,  and having the pilot give me those shiny plastic wings to pin on my shirt. Post 9-11, I believe those visits ended – but like many, I still take a peek to the left every time I get on a plane, hoping to get a glimpse of those dials.

While the modern cockpit may just look like a jumble, its design is extremely well planned to optimize safety and efficiency. There are several principles at work in airplane cockpit design that would serve businesspeople well as they design their own analytics cockpits:

Tell a story – Believe it or not, in the midst of all those dials and buttons, there is a story. From the ceiling of the cockpit to the levers on the bottom, there is a distinct pattern that is shared across different aircraft and becomes part of a pilot’s muscle memory. Your business dashboard also needs to tell a story, and in a consistent way, so your readers can get into a pattern.

Manage cognitive biases – An airplane cockpit takes into account all cognitive biases of a pilot to make in-flight navigation as smooth as possible. For example, navigation panels are to the left-center of the plane because as human beings, most pilots have a visual bias to read from left to right and top to bottom. Keep these biases in mind as you design the information flow for your dashboard.

Placement of the most important metrics – Cockpit gauge placement based on factors such as flight sequence, frequency of use and whether or not a gauge is shared by two pilots. The most essential values for a pilot – altitude, fuel, and position – are placed at sitting eye level. Gauges that are not often used may be relegated to the outskirts of the cockpit.  To apply this practice to your business dashboard, think about which metric is the focal point. Anything else you add should support or enhance understanding of that point. For most businesses, that focal point is sales or revenue related.

Placement and design of visual controls – A pilot’s visual controls are right on the top of the cockpit. These are the filters that let the pilot drill down into data – much like the filters in a dashboard that allow a business user to drill down into what is most relevant for them. In the cockpit, the drilldowns happen right on the screen to keep a constant frame in place. Changing frames are not only cumbersome but also distracting to the user. Keep this in mind when designing your next dashboard.

Action orientation – There are multiple features in a cockpit that facilitate communication with on-the-ground controllers. A cockpit is not an information source – it is a decision-support tool. So is a business dashboard. Does your dashboard allow colleagues to make better, more informed decisions? The emphasis should be not just on insight, but also on actionability.

Automated, but programmed to raise alerts when manual intervention is needed – The purpose of autopilot is to free pilots to concentrate on a broader set of operations. Autopilot incorporates rules that allow it to raise alerts when manual intervention is needed. This philosophy also applies to dashboards – you should allow for an exceptions section that highlights outliers that need to be explored, discussed and possibly corrected.

One key difference between cockpits and business dashboards is the sophistication of the user. Airplane cockpits are not designed to enable anyone to fly a plane – pilots still must be highly trained. But business dashboards should be simple and easily understood by non-technical business users – designed for the lowest common denominator, with drilldowns available for more sophisticated readers.