What does your dashboard look like?

On my drive today I was thinking about my car’s dashboard. I drive a relatively modern car, so the dashboard is pretty simple – engine temperature, speed, tachometer, and fuel gauge. There’s not a lot to it. Looking at it reminded me, for some reason, of old car dashboards. They aren’t all super complicated, but then I found this example of a Bentley dashboard.

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Wow. That’s a lot of things. If you look closely, they aren’t all gauges, but there certainly are far more gauges than we have on a modern car. Why, I wondered? Well, it didn’t take too much thinking. What’s the purpose of my car dashboard? It helps me not break the law (speedometer), not break the car (tachometer and temperature) and make sure I get where I’m going (fuel gauge). While cars today are vastly more complicated than they used to be, the dashboards have gotten simpler, not more complex. As cars have become more reliable, and more black box, it has become less necessary (and less desirable) to display excess information. These four gauges pretty much cover the vast majority of what I need to know while driving my car. I could have gauges for all kinds of stuff, including running trends of every message every sensor sends to the on board computer. But they’re not there, because even if they were, I wouldn’t know what to do with the information. In fact, were I not driving a standard, I probably could do without the tachometer. On an automatic, engine speed and shifting is handled for me.

Which brings me to my point. Why is it that as cars have gotten more sophisticated our dashboards have gotten simpler, but in IT our dashboards have gotten more complex as our software process has matured? I suspect the reason is that because we can. There’s tons of data to be had from software development, and very little of it actually has much influence over the outcome of a project. If you keep a handful of things under control there’s no need to have excessive measures. As cars became more robust, there became less reason to monitor every possible system and the components started to disappear off the dashboard. If your software process becomes more standard, and there is less deviation to monitor, then your dashboard should become simpler as well. So, if you’re ending up with a complicated dashboard because your management “needs the information to make decisions” maybe it’s time to start asking which decisions simply don’t need to be made. Standardize and make the process robust; simplify the dashboard.

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