back to article Take the dashboard too literally and your brains might end up all over it

UIs with buttons and sliders existed for years as a means of putting a slick gloss on the data jungle that is Excel. But Salesforce provided the breakthrough in presenting complex business data with the metaphor of the dashboard. This put complex data wrangling in the hands of those otherwise lacking the intermediary skills of …

  1. Omgwtfbbqtime

    All a dashboard should do

    Is tell you where to start looking.

    Does something look odd?

    Even with a car, the dials and lights are just there to tell you there is a problem not solve it, even then if the Dash shows everything is normal, nothing to see here, but you hear a horrible grinding the problem is with your dash not your ears.

    1. tiggity Silver badge

      Re: All a dashboard should do

      Or, in the case of a relatives car I sometimes drive (so far newer & more bells & whistles than what I have), pretend there is a fault when there is not one.

      .. It regularly throws up a tyre pressure warning (irritatingly "tire"), when there's nothing wrong with the tyre, just the TPMS being useless. Totally useless

      1. Omgwtfbbqtime

        Re: All a dashboard should do

        Or as SWMBO used to do, turn up the stereo so you cannot hear the funny noise!

      2. Nick Ryan Silver badge

        Re: All a dashboard should do

        Or the other gem: not show the mispelt "tire", just some hieroglyph that even when you find the arbitrary symbol out of the hundreds in the "manual" still doesn't mean tyre. So the next step is to bring up the in-dash information system, find the correct section and then it will, entirely unhelpfully, tell you that one of the car's tyres has a pressure warning. There is, of course, a separate sensor in each wheel so it knows which bloody tyre has a pressure warning but it won't tell you which one of course, because that would make it easy. Similarly it won't tell you what the expected pressure is alongside the current pressure because that would make life far too easy as well.

  2. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    Why do Mazda fake the data?

    Because marketing have decided that an oil pressure gauge is required by the 'sporting aspirations' driver at whom their car is aimed.

    They have observed that the majority of their owners have no idea what the gauge represents but if the needle is nicely in the middle then the user is happy - until the big red 'oops too late' light comes on...

    I have heard of similar tales on the water temperature gauge of certain US cars - they simply switch to 'normal' position after a fixed time and take no account of the actual temperature.

    People who actually understand what the gauges are there for, and have the knowledge to interpret the trends they display, are becoming more and more rare.

    1. John Arthur

      Re: Why do Mazda fake the data?

      @Neil Barnes. This is nothing new. In the good old days I had a couple of Jaguars. The first had a proper oil pressure gauge that went up and down a bit depending on revs. and the temperature of the engine. The next one, from 1994, had an oil pressure gauge that went exactly half way as soon as the engine started and stayed there no matter what. When I asked why I was told it was designed like this, effectively no different to a warning light but a lot less conspicuous, as owners in the past had got worried about the varying readings on the 'real' gauges. If the owners are thick then come down to their level!

      1. My other car WAS an IAV Stryker

        Re: Why do Mazda fake the data?

        I've worked with plenty of automotive data. Fake data such as engine "actual" torque output is a filtered calculation based on fuel rate (measured, maybe; likely estimated from injector pattern), boost pressure (actual*), engine speed, etc. Engine supplier echoed John Arthur: users are idiots and don't need actual data, as if engines had actual torque meters on the crankshaft! (*Boost pressure at intake manifold really was actual and you could see the surging every upshift.)

        I made up nice graphical dashboards for a chassis dynamometer test cell running off CAN data -- great to see a general picture of what's going on in the vehicle (allowing driver-less operation), but worthless to diagnose an actual problem. It is the CAN-based "trouble codes" (visible to user as "idiot lamps" or "flash codes", or via OBDC readers) that one needs to look for.

        I've made plenty of other CAN dashboards for various projects. The usefulness is in changing each one to fit the needs of the test of the day: What data will (quickly and reliably) tell me if item X is working properly or not? It helps when the data you want is actually available on the CAN bus.

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Why do Mazda fake the data?

      You're right that car dashboards are the equivalent of complicated Swiss watches. But we all like to think we're going to be driving in the next Le Mans or Paris-Dakar…

      1. BebopWeBop

        Re: Why do Mazda fake the data?

        In a faint echo of other comments above, I suspect the vast vast majority of drivers do not actually know what to do not even know what to use a rev counter fo and even more have no need) - but hey, it's a sports car or wannabe and so gotta have that rev counter.

        I was given a drive in a BMW i8 a couple of weeks ago - lovely car and a fantastic engine noise - simulated!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why do Mazda fake the data?

      It's not just Mazda, quite a number of OEM's do exactly the same...

      Hardware oil pressure sensors are expensive (it's fitted to every vehicle made) relative to the cost of a cheap software resource hacking in a look-up table (once in development, plus a few updates to tweak).

      It happens with other sensors as well. I remember working on a turbo pressure gauge that was more show then anything else (Source was CAN with ~400ms period, no way that will keep up with the waste-gate).

      1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Why do Mazda fake the data?

        Hardware oil pressure sensors are expensive ...

        Have you priced out a new engine, recently? :-)

        About $13 for my Toyota. Granted, it's a switch, not a sensor, but it serves the same purpose.

        The resistive sensors for gauges are about twice that. I'd rather sense the actual oil pressure than count on some computer algorithm to display what it thinks the pressure might be, but isn't really sure...

        1. druck Silver badge

          Re: Why do Mazda fake the data?

          We asked Mazda about the obvious fake oil pressure gauge on the RX-8, and their answer was they do this because a significant number of numskulls would complain the car was broken if the needle ever moved from the centre.

          The coolant temperature gauge isn't completely fake, it will show the engine warming up, but it's set up so it only starts rising above normal when the engine is practically melting and damage is being done.

          1. Steve the Cynic

            Re: Why do Mazda fake the data?

            The coolant temperature gauge isn't completely fake, it will show the engine warming up, but it's set up so it only starts rising above normal when the engine is practically melting and damage is being done.

            The only time I've ever seen a coolant temperature gauge go high was my old Fiesta ('86 "D" reg, Mark II). One sunny day in a traffic jam, I noticed it was pegged at the highest position. Hmm. Oh, look, I'm next to a pub, so I'll park in the car park, let the poor thing cool off.

            Waited a while with the bonnet open to let some air circulate up through the engine compartment just in case there was an actual problem. Got back in, turned on the ignition (but didn't start the engine). Pegged at max. Hmm. OK, the traffic's moving, so I drove to work. In the evening, I came out. Yes, once again, after a full day to cool off, pegged at max.

            Took it to a garage, got the sensor changed, no problem...

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why do Mazda fake the data?

      My 19 year old van is almost as bad. Fuel, speed and engine temp information come from a shit two wire communication bus and even though the instruments have real, mechanical needles, the readings are all simulations. When I found out that if the solder for the ground connection cracked it would leave the vehicle stranded, I ripped the dams thing out and went with real fuel and water temp gauges. Speedometer uses GPS so that reading is still calculated. Oh well...

      And when I checked the OEM dashboard PCB, yes, the ground connection was nearly shot.

  3. Bill M

    Chart based encryption

    But it can depend on what one wishes to achieve and that is where chart based encryption and its variants come into play.

    If one is producing a company annual report and there is some data that is unflattering that one needs to report on then a 3D pie chart with 100+ segments is ideal. It visualises the data but it is nigh on impossible for a human to mentally extract much insight from it.

    Bar charts with axis not starting at zero are great for biasing human insight.

    And the classic for obfuscation is simply loads of high res colourful, but irrelevant images. The human eye is naturally drawn to the pretty pics as opposed to the unflattering data.

    1. Lee D Silver badge

      Re: Chart based encryption

      There are lies, damn lies and statistics indeed.

      They are a number of books that nicely illustrate (sorry) this point, about how presenting data in new and interesting ways can highlight (or disguise) different aspects of it. Things like The Visual Miscellaneum are a great way to demonstrate how infographics can show data in new ways.

      Basically - trust the numbers, not your instinctual reaction to a large red pie-section.

      And, yes, I'm a mathematician. You shouldn't trust us either. We have a way of being 100% accurate, while also being at least 98% misleading at the same time.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Chart based encryption

      Bar charts with axis not starting at zero are great for biasing human insight a useful warning that something's being fiddled.

  4. vtcodger Silver badge

    Oil Pressure Gauge?

    Oil pressure gauge? Eh ... Which one is the Oil Pressure Gauge? Not the big one labeled mph(?!) most likely. And not the other big one that says x1000. Could be any of the others? I'd think that Google -- the master of awful UIs -- had designed that dashboard except that it isn't done in Google's signature unreadable white on light blue.

    1. Lee D Silver badge

      Re: Oil Pressure Gauge?

      I have a 2016 vehicle. There is no oil pressure gauge. Because...well... let's be honest, if you need it, then you shouldn't have let your vehicle get to that point (i.e. you should know enough to get someone to service it precisely because you never do, or you should know enough to service it yourself).

      There's an oil light (although explaining that they occasionally need to check that ALL THE LIGHTS COME ON when they start the car, and then all go out, is lost on most people). There's a rev meter (which I don't understand the point of nowadays, given that there are also gear-change icons as well as this big loud revving noise or stall action if not in the right range). There's a speedo. There's even a thing that tells me fuel efficiency (which I would argue is actually quite useful in this eco-era).

      But oil-pressure? Nope. Same way I don't need to know the battery voltage, etc. It's a detail that shouldn't need to be *measured* as part of the normal course of driving operation. I'm sure the *car* might want to know it... does the ECU act on oil-pressure for anything other than a low pressure warning? I don't think so. But I'm sure the car needs to know exhaust temperature, O2 content of intake air, valve timing, etc. I don't. It does.

      To be honest, that's how a dashboard should work. The stuff I need to know, only, including a big red light if there's some problem that requires intervention. Everything else is just a distraction. I don't need to know how many emails per second my server is dealing with. But I'd like a red light if - for some reason - it doesn't see any emails for a long time, or if it's hitting overload on dealing with incoming emails.

      But people lost that point about user-interfaces a long time ago, so most UIs try to show you everything all the time for no real reason. There's no need for my software firewall to flash for every possible network activity, for example.

      If I was in charge of some huge national grid of something, I'd want a red-amber-green of most things. And full statistics collection in the background, obviously. But I just need the red-amber-green. Everything else is detail that you can dig into later if it's more than an intermittent blip.

      1. bondyboy

        Re: Oil Pressure Gauge?

        "does the ECU act on oil-pressure for anything other than a low pressure warning? I don't think so. "

        Mines does, it won't VTEC if oil pressure is too low

  5. Chris Miller

    The only purpose of an oil pressure gauge was to let you know you were running out. This was in the good old days when all cars leaked oil, some in copious quantity others less so. But when did you last see a modern car with an oil leak*?

    * No, Land Rover Defenders don't leak oil, they just like to mark their territory.

    1. Charlie Clark Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Have an extra upvote for the Land Rover remark.

    2. vtcodger Silver badge

      It's not that uncommon in the US NorthEast where copious amounts of road salt are used in winter. Rocks or other stuff thrown up from the road scratch the paint on oil pans which then rust and eventually start to leak oil. Happens mostly with older cars of course, but modern cars often stay on the road for 15-20 years.

      1. 's water music

        Happens mostly with older cars of course, but modern cars often stay on the road for 15-20 years.

        isn't a modern car that has stayed on the road for 15-20 years an old car by then?

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Sigh... Why the gauge?

    Driver is supposed to be driving. Digital gauge provides a plethora of data to the standardized onboard diagnostics subsystem (look up OBD-II) so that proper mechanics can see the actual system state at time of failure rather than relying on the hazy recollection of a driver jacked up on blow and driving 250km/hr when he finally decides to notice das blinkenlighten. All the driver needs is go/no go and for a really motivated person a means of providing awareness of trends.

    I'm an old school hardware guy and love a good analog system, but making an analog gauge linear for any given transducer can lead to some weird circuit and mechanical design problems. A lookup table in the digital domain sorts that sort of issue cheaply and elegantly. Ex: care to guess why the fuel quantity indication in your old vehicle varied significantly as a function of road grade and your new one is rock steady? You're welcome.

    What does this have to do with DevOps? Only an idiot would try to troubleshoot and repair something as complex as a car using only the dashboard indicators when OBD-II and it's kin provide proper state information. But give me a DevOps guy with his everfscking dashboard troubleshooting a far more complex system than a car and I will show you just what sort of idiot would try.

    Mines the one with the OBD-II to Bluetooth dongle in the pocket, thanks.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Sigh... Why the gauge?

      "care to guess why the fuel quantity indication in your old vehicle varied significantly as a function of road grade and your new one is rock steady?"

      One reflects a physical reality, the other some abstraction. Care to guess which one would I prefer to see based on the fact that my car runs on physical real fuel, not on an abstraction?

  7. Paul Herber Silver badge

    The original dashboards were designed to protect you from all the shit kicked up (dashed up) by the horse's hooves. So, no change there.

    1. Robert D Bank

      no it was originally to stop the oil splashes from the 'dash pots', which were literally pots of oil that gravity fed various things in the really old cars. It has a different meaning in the modern context.. Hence the name dashboard. But nice to be protected from horse shit as well. Unfortunately they don't protect you from DevOps/Agile shit.

  8. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Data sources

    Unless the "dashboard" is actually tied to a flow of realtime data the information is going to be an approximation. I know nothing of measuring systems and automated data collection. But I know a lot about people supplying data that is fed into systems. First off, you can't rely on the data being complete when it was input. And if the data recording system rejects inputs that are incomplete someone is going to "fix" it by adding a few extra numbers. Next some of the data points may well have been guesses by any of the string of people who did the original data collection, because they lost/couldn't read the original information. Then there is rounding error caused by not bothering to actually look at the digits properly. (Remember £9.99 = £9.00 in real life). And finally there is polishing of data. Which can be consciously trying to make data look better or unconsciously giving the benefit of the doubt. The best (worst) example of the latter was many years ago when primary schools first started collecting attainment data. In one school the information passed on about a class made no sense. The levels of reading at age 8 didn't seem to match those from age 7. Discussing these with the previous year's teacher and it became apparent that she'd "fixed" the data to match what she thought they should show. She even said things like "Well X is brighter then Y but they both came up as 2s so I've made her a 3".

    1. Chairman of the Bored

      Re: Data sources

      For a good read, check out the chapter in Freakanomics about how teachers in Chicago game the student attainment exams. Interesting lesson on data falsification and the artifacts one leaves behind when attempting to be "clever"

  9. John H Woods Silver badge

    The dashboard graphs I hate ...

    ... (or, more accurately, those I dread the usual interpretations of) are %CPU.

    Load average / processor queue length is, in my opinion, a much better indication of how hard systems are working.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Oil Pressure Gauge ?

    I see oil / coolant temperature gauges there alright - but no pressure gauges ...

    Even the older analogue ones are usually damped to prevent folk having a fit over minor fluctuations.

    1. quxinot

      Re: Oil Pressure Gauge ?

      As I recall, the NB series of MX-5/Miata (1998-2005ish? The first ones that lost pop-up headlamps) rather than having a proper sensor for the oil pressure, just had a binary sensor instead. It's a fairly common thing for enthusiasts to replace it so that they can see what their oil pressure actually is doing.

      The earlier, NA models (89-97) had a proper sender. Many people assumed it was a cost savings when they did the redesign.

    2. John Arthur

      Re: Oil Pressure Gauge ?

      The so-called oil pressure gauge is the one in the middle at the top, between the speedo and the tachometer. It would help if it was labelled pressure; it could easily be read as oil temperature. The coolant temperature gauge, another vanishing item, is lower right. My current car, from 2005, has a proper coolant temperature gauge. A couple of years ago I spotted odd behaviour, such as getting lower when cruising downhill, and self-diagnosed a thermostat stuck in the open position. Changed within a week and soon running at usual fuel economy. My wife's slightly newer car has no coolant temperature gauge nor a warning light for when the engine is cold. How one would detect a thermostat stuck open, a very common failure, I don't know. Progress!

  11. Stuart Halliday

    What do Military vehicles do?

  12. Stuart Halliday

    Had a few electronic thermometers, nothing special. But I did wonder how accurate they were.

    So I took a medical thermometer which I assumed would have to be accurate and put it in water at 35°C as read by the device.

    Each of cheap thermometers were dipped in and their display read. So, after trying 4 of them, readings went from +6° to -2° out.

    Manufacturer datasheet promised +-2°C...

    Moral is, never trust one sensor, use a minimum of 3.

  13. doublelayer Silver badge

    seductive and ... elegant?

    The article says: "At their best, dashboards are seductive, elegant and informative. At their worst they are seductive, elegant and horribly misleading."

    I beg to differ. At their worst, dashboards are hideously inelegant. They have about a hundred links to things I don't need. Either they're just all out there, usually on the top or left, or the dashboard people put them into one tiny button so that if you ever need them, you have to scroll gigantic menus. Then you have data that isn't related to what I'm doing, so the page is big and mostly pointless. Then, you have the things where something I have to deal with is on the dashboard, and the page that lets me interact with that thing is also accessed from the dashboard, but the two aren't connected. For example, a dashboard for tasks that I had for a while that would show you a nice clean table of the tasks with their statuses and summaries. And if you wanted to look at the detail or change them, you couldn't click on anything to open it up. No, you had to enter the task number in the search box, being careful to change the search type to "task number" from the default of generic search (which would not find a task by its number), which would always pull up a search results page even when you entered the whole number. Then you could click on the one result on the results page to see the task. And you would see the form with (not joking) eighty five different text entry or selection boxes for different elements of the task, at least sixty of which were empty because no one needs them. That is what a dashboard is at its worst.

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Good data, bad interpretation...

    Funny aside...

    Stuck in v.slow traffic in a tuned VX220 on a hot summer day.

    Noticed rising coolant temperature on the Stack gauges. They're pretty direct sensor to dash!

    It slowly keeps rising, fan comes on and stays on but temperature keeps going up and I'm still a mile off the M-way junction that'd allow movement and air to cool things down.

    Mild panic, not wanting a head gasket to go, so I pull over and switch off and allow things to cool.

    Only when I tentatively switch back on 10 minutes later do I realise that I was reading the odometer and not the temperature gauge. Duh!!!!

    Good data. Bad interpretation. :-)

    (Google the dash image and you'll see it's an easy mistake to make!)

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