Dashboards: Redux (or What to Look for in a Performance Monitoring Dashboard)

Last autumn we launched our customizable dashboards for Circonus, and we happen to think they’re pretty sweet. In this post, I’m not going to get into specifics about our dashboards (for more on that, you can check out my previous post, “One Dashboard to Rule Them All”), but instead I’ll talk more generally about what you should look for in your performance monitoring dashboard of choice.

Your dashboard shouldn’t limit its focus to technical data; it should help you track what really matters: business success.

A lot of data analysis done today is technical analysis for technical benefit. But the real value comes when we are able to take this expertise and start empowering better business decisions. As such, a performance monitoring dashboard which is solely focused on networks, systems, and applications is limiting because it doesn’t address what really matters: business.

While your purpose for monitoring may be to make your company’s web business operate smoothly, you can influence your overall business through what you operate and control, including releases, performance, stability, computing resources, networking, and availability. Thus, your dashboard should be designed to enable this kind of cross-pollination. By understanding which of your business metrics are critical to your success, you will be able to effectively use a dashboard to monitor those elements that are vital to your business.

Your dashboard should be able to handle multiple data sources.

There are many technologies in use across the web today. Chances are good that you have many different data sources across your business, so you need a dashboard that can handle them. It?s no good for a dashboard to only be able to gather part of your business data, because you’ll be viewing an incomplete picture. You need a dashboard that can handle all of your data sources, preferably on a system that’s under active development—continuing to integrate the best new technologies coming down the pike.

Your dashboard should provide access to real-time data.

The value of real-time data should not be underestimated; having real-time data capabilities on your dashboard is critical. Rather than requiring you to hit the refresh button, it should use real-time data to show you what is going on right now. Having this up-to-date picture makes your analysis of the data more valuable because it’s based on what’s happening in the moment. Some sectors already embracing this type of real-time analysis include finance, stock trading, and high-frequency trading.

Your dashboard should provide visualizations to match different types of data.

Your dashboard should provide different visualizations, because the visualization method you choose should fit the data you’re displaying. It’s easy to gravitate towards the slickest, shiniest visualizations, but they don’t always make the most sense for your data.

One popular visualization design is the rotary needle (dial) gauge. Gauges look cool, but they can be misleading if you don’t know their limits. Also, because of their opaque nature, the picture they give you of the current state is without context. Gauges can be great for monitoring certain data like percentages, temperature, power per rack, or bandwidth per uplink, but visualizations like graphs are generally better because they can give you context and history in a compact space. Graphs not only show you what’s going on now but also what happened before, and they allow you to project historic data (e.g. last day/week) alongside current data or place multiple datasets side-by-side so you can compare trends.

It’s also easy to forget that sometimes you may not need a visualization at all. Some data is most easily understood in text form (perhaps formatted in a table). Your dashboard should provide different ways of viewing data so you can choose the best method for your particular data sets.

Your dashboard’s interface shouldn’t be over-designed.

Designers tend to show off their design chops by creating slick, shiny user interfaces for their dashboards, but these are frequently just eye-candy and can get in the way of “scannability.” You need to be able to understand your dashboard at a glance, so design should stay away from being too graphics-heavy and should not have too much information crammed into tiny spaces. These lead to visual clutter and make you have to “work too hard” whenever you try to read your dashboard. The design should help you focus on your data, not the interface.

Everybody’s idea of a “perfect dashboard” will vary somewhat, but by following these guidelines you will be well on your way to selecting a dashboard that lets you monitor your data however you want. Remember, the goal is informed, data-driven decision-making, and it’s not unreachable. If you haven’t yet tested the capabilities of Circonus (including our customizable dashboards), why not give it a try with a free one month trial period?