There’s Nothing Mere About Semantics

Disagreements and confusion are often characterized as mere matters of semantics. There is nothing “mere” about semantics, however. Differences that are based in semantics can be insidious, for we can differ semantically without even realizing it. It is our shared understanding of word meanings that enables us to communicate. Unfortunately, our failure to define our terms clearly lies at the root of countless misunderstandings and a world of confusion.

Language requires definitions. Definitions and how they vary depending on context are central to semantics. We cannot communicate effectively unless those to whom we speak understand how we define our terms. Even in particular fields of study and practice, such as my field of data visualization, practitioners often fail to define even its core terms in ways that are shared. This leads to failed discussions, a great deal of confusion, and harm to the field.

The term “dashboard” has been one of the most confusing in data visualization since it came into common use about 15 years ago. If you’re familiar with my work, you know that I’ve lamented this problem and worked diligently to resolve it. In 2004, I wrote an article titled “Dashboard Confusion” that offered a working definition of the term. Here’s the definition that appeared in that article:

A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives that has been consolidated on a single computer screen so it can be monitored at a glance.

Over the years, I refined my original definition in various ways to create greater clarity and specificity. In my Dashboard Design course, in addition to the definition above, eventually I began to share the following revised definition as well:

A dashboard is a predominantly visual information display that people use to rapidly monitor current conditions that require a timely response to fulfill a specific role.

Primarily, I revised my original definition to emphasize that the information most in need of a dashboard—a rapid-monitoring display—is that which requires a timely response. Knowing what to display on a dashboard, rather than in other forms of information display, such as monthly reports, is one of the fundamental challenges of dashboard design.

Despite my steadfast efforts to promote clear guidelines for dashboard design, confusion persists because of the diverse and conflicting ways in which people define the term, some of which are downright nonsensical.

When Tableau Software first added the ability to combine multiple charts on a single screen in their product, I encouraged them to call it something other than a dashboard, knowing that doing so would contribute to the confusion. The folks at Tableau couldn’t resist, however, because the term “dashboard” was popular and therefore useful for marketing and sales. Unfortunately, if you call any display that combines multiple charts for whatever reason a dashboard, you can say relatively little about effective design practices. This is because designs, to be effective, must vary significantly based on how and for what purpose the information is used. For example, how we should design a display that’s used for rapidly monitoring—what I call a dashboard—is different in many ways from how we should design a display that’s used for exploratory data analysis.

To illustrate the ongoing prevalence of this problem, we don’t need to look any further than the most recent book of significance that’s been written about dashboards: The Big Book of Dashboards, by Steve Wexler, Jeffrey Shaffer, and Andy Cotgreave. The fact that all three authors are avid users and advocates of Tableau Software is reflected in their definition of a dashboard and in the examples of so-called dashboards that appear in the book. These examples share nothing in common other than the fact that they include multiple charts.

When one of the authors told me about his plans for the book as he and his co-authors were just beginning to collect examples, I strongly advised that they define the term dashboard clearly and only include examples that fit that definition. They did include a definition in the book, but what they came up with did not address my concern. They apparently wanted their definition to describe something in particular—monitoring—but the free-ranging scope of their examples prevented them from doing so exclusively. Given this challenge, they wrote the following definition:

A dashboard is a visual display of data used to monitor conditions and/or facilitate understanding.

Do you see the problem? Stating that a dashboard is used for monitoring conditions is specific. So far, so good. Had they completed the sentence with “and facilitate understanding,” the definition would have remained specific, but they didn’t. The problem is their inclusion of the hybrid conjunction: “and/or.” Because of the “and/or,” according to their definition a dashboard is any visual display whatsoever, so long as it supports monitoring or facilitates understanding. In other words, any display that 1) supports monitoring but doesn’t facilitate understanding, 2) facilitates understanding but doesn’t support monitoring, or 3) both supports monitoring and facilitates understanding, is a dashboard. Monitoring displays, analytical displays, simple lookup reports, even infographics, are all dashboards, as long as they either support monitoring or facilitate understanding. As such, the definition is all-inclusive to the point of uselessness.

Only 2 of the 28 examples of displays that appear in the book qualify as rapid-monitoring displays. The other 26 might be useful for facilitating understanding, but by including displays that share nothing in common except that they are all visual and include multiple charts, the authors undermined their own ability to teach anything that is specific to dashboard design. They provided useful bits of advice in the book, but they also added to the confusion that exists about dashboards and dashboard design.

In all disciplines and all aspects of life, as well, we need clarity in communication. As such, we need clearly defined terms. Using terms loosely creates confusion. It’s not just a matter of semantics. Semantics matter.

Take care,

12 Comments on “There’s Nothing Mere About Semantics”


By Dale Lehman. December 14th, 2017 at 6:40 am

I’ve learned much about the importance of semantics from you, Stephen. You’ve taken me to task several times in my comments over my sloppy (my term) use of words. I wholeheartedly agree with both those criticisms and the thrust of this post. What I have observed regarding dashboards is that many people view them as ends rather than means. Once a display has multiple visuals it is a dashboard. Since there is no defined objective, there is rarely any systematic follow-up to see if the right information was placed on the dashboard, nor whether it is improving whatever decision making it was designed to support – not surprising since that objective was never clearly defined. Worse yet, many people are assuaged by the belief that they are now “data driven” since the dashboard is there, but don’t really use the dashboard to increase understanding and monitor conditions.

Perhaps there needs to be more focus on the relationships between the different displays on the dashboard. I would conjecture that most decision-makers focus on one or two of the displays to “monitor,” but without a meaningful relationship between the displays, there can be no improved understanding. One visual may show revenues are increasing in certain geographic regions while another may show no change in profits across regions. This would clearly point to something about costs that should be part of the dashboard. In other words, the relationships among the displays is the structure of the dashboard – without focusing on these relationships, the dashboard is merely a set of displays. Then the issue of how many displays are required and whether they fit on one computer screen or one page, etc. becomes the focus of attention, leading to the situation you have described.

By Andrew. December 14th, 2017 at 1:42 pm

It seems to me that for any hope of rescuing the term “dashboard” from the vague definition, what we need is a new term for such screens that have multiple charts but are not actually dashboards.

I suggest we call them Functioning Analytical Displays. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but for marketing purposes I’m sure we could abbreviate it somehow.

By Stephen Few. December 14th, 2017 at 1:59 pm

Andrew,

I worked diligently a decade ago to do exactly this, but my attempt got no traction. The name that I proposed back then for a multi-chart display that’s used for analytical purposes was “Faceted Analytical Display.” Faceted (multiple faces) refers to the multiple views that these displays provide. Unless you read my article about this ten years ago, you’ve probably never heard the term.

In the spirit of clear terminology, which is the topic at hand, I would argue that including “functioning” in the term that you’ve proposed doesn’t add any value. The fact that an analytical display should function goes without saying. Regardless, to get traction, terms of this sort have the best chance of getting tractin when they’re short and catchy. The name that I came up with for the “bullet graph” was picked up for this reason.

By Dale Lehman. December 14th, 2017 at 2:27 pm

on the other hand, the acronym FAD is irresistible!

By Andrew. December 14th, 2017 at 5:06 pm

Stephen,

I agree that “Faceted” is a better choice than “Functioning”, but only when seriously proposing a new name. “Functioning” wasn’t intended to add any value other than its contribution to the acronym FAD, a short and catchy name that, I believe, is a perfect selling point for any BI vendor.

“Yes, our newest edition of BI Data Genius now supports FADs.” Finally, truth in advertising!

Speaking seriously, I do recall reading about Faceted Analytical Displays long ago – I particularly remember your description of Brushing, a great idea still absent or poorly-implemented in most software 10 years later. I remember trying to use the term to explain the difference between dashboards and screens with charts on them, and always thought of it as a preferable name. But I’m happy with choosing “Functioning” in my term, if anything to distance my joke ever-so-slightly from your genuine proposal.

By Andy Cotgreave. December 18th, 2017 at 9:54 am

Hi Steve,
Clearly we are going to disagree on the importance of semantics. In response to your post, we’d simply like to share the full text from our book’s Preface regarding how we defined a dashboard.
Regards, Andy Cotgreave, Steve Wexler and Jeff Shaffer

BEGIN QUOTE:
What is a dashboard?

Ask 10 people who build business dashboards to define a dashboard and you will probably get 10 different definitions. For the purpose of this book, our definition is as follows:

“A dashboard is a visual display of data used to monitor conditions and/or facilitate understanding.”

This is a broad definition, and it means that we would consider all of the examples listed below to be dashboards:
• An interactive display that allows people to explore worker compensation claims by region, industry, and body part
• A PDF showing key measures that gets e-mailed to an executive every Monday morning
• A large wall-mounted screen that shows support center statistics in real time
• A mobile application that allows sales managers to review performance across different regions and compare year-to-date sales for the current year with the previous year

Even if you don’t consider every example in this book a true dashboard, we think you will find the discussion and analysis around each of the scenarios helpful in building your solutions. Indeed, we can debate the definition until we are blue in the face, but that would be a horrible waste of effort as it simply isn’t that important. What is important—make that essential— is understanding how to combine different elements (e.g., charts, text, legends, filters, etc.) into a cohesive and coordinated whole that allows people to see and understand their data.
END QUOTE

By Stephen Few. December 18th, 2017 at 10:21 am

Andy,

The context that you provided doesn’t address the problem. It certainly doesn’t explain or defend the nonsensical nature of your definition. Contrary to your argument, definitions do matter.

Clear thinking is the foundation of clear communication. The inability or unwillingness to think carefully and clearly plagues the field of data visualization. Progress in our field won’t be made by focusing on the latest technologies but on encouraging practitioners to think carefully and clearly about data. As long as advisers (authors, so-called thought leaders, teachers, etc.) fail to exhibit clear thinking and communication, they will contribute to the current pattern of “one step forwards, two steps back.”

By jlbriggs. December 18th, 2017 at 10:41 am

I am afraid I can’t get behind the “What’s a dashboard? Who even knows?! Here’s a bunch…” approach either.

But I fear that it’s a losing battle against a giant wave of Tableau users/promoters who are starting to use Tableau’s terminology in ways that don’t make sense.

I have left a number of data visualization communities over the last several months after conversations that turn into rabid defense of Tableau itself, and of the misuse of terms based on using Tableau. It’s very disheartening and frustrating, especially when the people involved have a lot of influence among new cohorts of data visualization practitioners.

A couple of examples of such conversations that show that we’re going to have a really hard time breaking through the apathy over semantics:

1) A conversation about floating bars not being a type of bar chart, but rather a subset of a Gantt Chart. Why? Because in Tableau, you use the Gantt mark type in order to build a floating bar chart.

2) A conversation about a Pareto chart that was actually just a cumulative growth time-series chart. Why? Because in Tableau, you use the “Pareto function” to build your cumulative data.

The idea that we’re actively teaching people to use these terms in these ways is maddening. People love to embrace a superficial understanding of things and run with it.

By Andrew. December 18th, 2017 at 12:46 pm

@jlbriggs: “The idea that we’re actively teaching people to use these terms in these ways is maddening. People love to embrace a superficial understanding of things and run with it.”

That may be a result of nobody needing to be an expert to use BI software (as promised by vendors). It makes it easier to keep terms vague or to misuse them when the reader is not an expert and doesn’t need to be.

By jlbriggs. December 19th, 2017 at 11:18 am

@Andrew – while that’s certainly a part of it, the people I am referring to in this case are people who are, supposedly, experts, who are in positions that involve teaching, mentoring, or both.

It’s institutional, which is why it is so disheartening.

By Daniel Zvinca. December 20th, 2017 at 1:46 am

Despite your efforts, Steve, dashboard is a term already used for almost any graphical display showing relationships between quantitative and/or categorical variables. The very same term is used by a large audience independent of the media (large screen, monitor, mobile screen, paper), interactivity level (none, tooltips, selection, advanced customisation), amount of views (single or many), or scope (exploratory, explanatory).

This is a direct result of aggressive commercial campaigns of known vendors and their exponents. I appreciate your effort in restoring the dashboard term sense, but I am afraid it already lost its initial powerful meaning and influence. Dashboard became synonym with “whatever you want to be as long as it displays a large variety of my tool features”. Commercially speaking dasboard is already an obsolete term. I expect to be soon replaced with a more striking alternative.

I personally prefer using Analytical Display to describe the graphical output of my work. The conclusion of an analytical process assisted (or enriched) by graphical elements.

By Stephen Few. December 20th, 2017 at 10:02 am

Daniel,

I don’t hold out any hope that software vendors will ever take responsibility for cleaning up this mess, which is mostly their creation. The term “dashboard” has been the source of confusion since the beginning, and the confusion is now well entrenched. When I advocate clear terminology, however, I do so to encourage practitioners and those who support them (thought leaders, consultants, authors, teachers, etc.) to strive for the clarity that is needed to guide good practice. Whereas vendors are driven by profits, practitioners and those who support them should be driven by results. As such, it is not entirely insane to hope for improvement.

I don’t agree that the term “dashboard” is “already an obsolete term.” I wish this were true, for it would give us an opportunity to start fresh with clear terms. While much of the buzz around dashboards has died down, the term is firmly established and will likely remain so for many years to come. I would love to wipe the entire data sensemaking slate clean of all its terminology and start fresh with thoughtful and clear definitions. Only in my dreams will this opportunity ever present itself.

Your term “Analytical Display” suffers from fundamental problems. First, when people hear the term, many, perhaps most, will assume that it refers to a display that is used for analytical purposes, not a display that presents the results of analysis. Second, it isn’t useful as a term because it tells us nothing about the form of display. The results of analysis can be presented in many ways. For the term to be useful, it would need to specify the form of display such that we could talk about best practices. In my article titled “Display Platforms for Quantitative Information,” written in 2014, I attempted to provide a basic taxonomy of quantitative displays to help people think more clearly about their objectives when choosing an appropriate form of display — one with which best practices could be associated. For the terms that we use to classify and describe data visualizations to be useful, they need to specify the form of display to this degree.