just some thoughts about software and other things I like

Mission Critical Displays

Around the world, most startups (and probably a lot of actual businesses) have flat-screen TVs around the office showing off their KPIs, conversion rates, error rates, new leads, new users, marketing spend, and other data deemed "useful" to the team.

How often do team members look at these screens? How much data are we trying to cram onto these displays? Is it useful data? Does it look cool or make your team look "data-oriented"?

I started a project focused on this, read the overview →

I remember visiting a friend at Uber in their early days (~2012, I know right?), and my mind was blown when I saw all the displays around the office showing what seemed to be useful operational data. There had to be more than 100 TVs in the central area where the engineers worked.

I thought, "I want to work someplace where there are TVs up with charts and data on them!"

When you look up, boom, a chart or blinky status about something. who cares what, it just looked cool damnit! I need this!

While working at Rackspace in SF, I got another glimpse of this phenomenon. Here, the ultra nerds surrounded themselves with data about the web services they built and maintained. Displays were everywhere, all showing what appeared to be valuable data, I thinkā€¦

I'm curious to know how often someone's eyes land on one of these displays in passing and alarm bells go off in his or her head: "Our conversion rate has dropped!", "our email campaign has a super-high spam response!".

The idea of showing simple key data to people certainly isn't new. We've done this for centuries in an analog sense. Train stations classically have their super cool flip-dot displays flip-dot displays, or even custom LCD displays where each letter is specially made to handle any other characters that may appear in the same place.

Often, the data displayed on these types of screens exhibits these characteristics:

  • it's really important to a wide number of people
  • visible in a large area, like an office, factory floor, or common area
  • clear/bright and easy to read
  • real-time

For some, a TV display with their favorite dashboard service, like GeckoBoard, Grafana, or New Relic, works great. All of these services (and certainly dozens of others) render your business data onto a TV screen.

I think there are a few ways to improve this data, depending on the data you'd like to display or how your business operates. You may find that this approach:

  • is harder to read at a distance because the LCD display backlight and contrast are too limiting
  • renders data too densely to be viewed, causing information overload
  • needs to have a computer plugged in or a web browser displaying the data either - full-screen or in a "kiosk" mode

Moreover, it's just boring, and few people pay attention to these displays. We take them for granted because this the same display technology that's on our laptop screens, our monitors on our desks, and our TVs at home. We just don't pay attention to these anymore because we have too many displays like this in our lives, trying to show us too much content we don't care about.

What if we considered using some of these display technologies from yesteryear? Could we render data in a new exciting way using the classic corner drug store LED matrix?

I've started on a project to test this hypothesis. Here are some key goals of the project:

  • study some classic display technologies like LED matrix displays and flip-dots
  • how much resolution does our display need in order to show useful information?
  • how far away can we read data from these displays vs. an LCD TV?

Here are some photos of the parts I've purchased (or had lying around) to study this. I'll post more about the assembly and project as a whole. Stay tuned.