What do your car, pants pocket, and refrigerator have in common with your life on the Web?
They all have a well designed, easy to use way of storing your data and actions, and they're called dashboards.
And now you're probably scratching your head or fighting the urge to raise an eyebrow, but trust me on this one. The wallet in your pants pocket and your refrigerator door with the hodgepodge of stuff are dashboards, just like the one in our cars and countless Web applications. But how can I safely make such an argument? Well, if a dashboard is an interface through which you get to key information and actions, then my point isn't as far off as you might have thought. In a way, your life is full of dashboards.
Your car, your refrigerator door, and your wallet are the most common real world dashboards. Whenever I intend to travel, make a purchase, or provide my contact information, my wallet is there to facilitate each action. It neatly holds my state ID, credit cards, insurance info, business cards, and small personal items. It's the hub for nearly every transaction I make. Whenever I need to, I can easily reach for it and dive into something with very little effort. It's always my jumping-off point for transactions, quickly providing an overview of nearly everything I'll need.
Likewise, my refrigerator door is another dashboard. It has a whiteboard of to-do items, a running shopping list, magnets holding up coupons and notes, and an occasional piece of art. It's my hub for things that need to be done in and out of the apartment. But how does this pass on to life on the Web?
Well, just like your car, wallet, and refrigerator, nearly every Web application has a dashboard of some sort. Those dashboards can hold your friends' activity, provide managerial actions, and serve as a warehouse of your media or activity. For large-scale services like Google or Flickr, a dashboard is often the only way to access and create new content, manage users and permissions, read notifications and alerts, and more. It's the life-line of your activity and content.
Within such a structure there may be a need for a dashboard that provides a horizontal view through the relationship layers (mostly snapshots of and links to content) to encourage exploration and highlight features.
Creating the Experiences
Your wallet and iGoogle are great examples of how dashboards should perform. Even before you start to add stuff to your wallet or customize your iGoogle, it's a functional and ingenious piece of design. As a platform that your visitors keep coming back to, these dashboards are the first real test of their—keyword being a'oetheira''—experiences with your service.
Once someone customizes their wallet or iGoogle, each easily fronts up actions and resources you'll need the most, streamlining your processes in a way that's tailored just for you. Just like a wallet becomes you as you customize it with your ID and credit cards, iGoogle evolves from simply news, weather, and e-mail to your news, your weather, and your e-mail. They go from being simply a structured hierarchy to a full on, me-centered experiences.
As Web designers, we have to be able to craft the platforms for dashboards. It's important for people to easily perform activities on the websites through me-centric dashboards so that they keep coming back. As a well designed and easy to use interface, the dashboard is key to showing visitors how to access and use parts of the site. It's their primary experience with which they gauge the rest of your service.
The question is: how much of a me-centric experience does your dashboard create?