Perspectives on greener product development and manufacturing from Sustainable Minds, our partners, customers and contributors.

Dashboards and Meters: the Next Blinking 12:00?

By Sandy Skees on September 25, 2009

We are bombarded with data, visuals, advertisements, tweets, updates and videos, so do we really need our products to beep, change colors, add leaves or update graphs? Especially since many people never use all of the functionality built into most products or, worse yet, simply discard the product when its complication oversteps its usefulness?

Recent product design is incorporating dashboards and metering capabilities as consumer features. Prius, Honda, Google Smart Meter, and even Mint.com are examples of products that incorporate a feedback mechanism into the product itself. ‘Hypermiling’ is the term for how to wring every last drop of efficiency from hybrid automobiles and can be found on sites like CleanMGP. While these dashboards provide a clear and powerful way to display data, they introduce a set of design challenges that must integrate social science strategies in order to be most effective.

In the same way that compelling stories can change behaviors, dashboards can do the same, if they are designed from the outset to generate behaviors that add up to a larger benefit.

I interviewed Marc Rettig, CEO of Fit Associates and social ethnographer, for his thoughts on dashboards, and he had several recommendations that help to frame the design and communication challenge:

  • Displaying information does not equal “feedback.” Just because you show it doesn’t mean people see it, understand it, know how it correlates with their behavior, or feel motivated to adjust their behavior.

  • It isn’t always obvious what to measure: people will adjust their behavior according to the feedback they receive. If you’re measuring the wrong thing, their behavior change may have less impact or even the wrong impact.

  • It isn’t always obvious how to measure: sometimes getting the data you need to provide good feedback is tough. Bodymedia, for example, carefully researched where they could put sensors on people’s bodies so they could get accurate data while people were active, without making them uncomfortable.

  • It isn’t always obvious how to communicate the feedback: “kilowatt hours?” “tons of CO2?” Who knows what these things mean? “100 calories?” It’s up to the dashboard to help people map the feedback to their behavior. Otherwise you’re only giving them a meaningless gimmick, uninteresting after the novelty wears off because they see no connection to their lives.

  • The social possibilities are relatively unexplored: how interesting might it be when we can roll up say, household and institutional energy consumption to the level of neighborhoods, cities, regions, states, nations? Would a competitive spirit set in if this were visible to everyone in the same way? Will that help us introduce new language into the conversation about change?

  • For product design, there is a tension between this idea and the need for simplicity. We face an epidemic of complexity in our products, and it is making people nuts. This keeps coming up in our household studies. A dashboard could very easily be Yet Another Damn Display, yet another gadget. Increasing product cost, increasing frustration levels, and delivering little or no value.

When I say “simplicity” I’m not just talking about too many features in each product. I’m talking about systemic complexity. We’re to the point where even if your product has just one light and one button, it’s coming in to a home that’s over laden with lights and buttons and displays. Your product can be loved if it brings relief to that situation. If it adds without bringing relief, it better deliver significant authentic value. 


Dashboards and meters can create real change when they are simple and tied to a narrative of results that the consumer understands – how every action tracked benefits me, and we.

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