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Book Review: It’s Show Time!

book cover

book cover

Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data
Stephen Few
O’Reilly Press, 2006

Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten
Stephen Few
Analytics Press, 2004

Every decade, it seems, a few valiant standard-bearers for effective visual communication arise and publish guidebooks for those who have not been exposed to the philosophy, principles, and techniques of information design and information visualization. Stephen Few, principal of the consulting firm Perceptual Edge, is one such standard bearer.

These two books are good introductions to that field. The older and more fundamental is Show Me the Numbers. The publisher’s comments identify it as a “practical and commonsense guide” that one can use in business, where a “more skilled presentation of information will help you and your business to prosper.” This book seeks to assist in that effort, and its advice is sound.

Show Me the Numbers covers the essentials of communicating, through tables and charts, quantitative data and relationships, especially summaries—a key challenge for the busy professional. The fundamentals are presented succinctly, such as when to use tables and charts, definitions of charting types, and even a brief history of chart-making. Standard-deviation charts, correlation charts, scatter plots, line charts, bar charts, and others all have their moment. They are defined and demonstrated, and advice is given for their best presentation.

Few denounces the pie chart as ineffective (because it is hard to judge angular relationships and hard to label things in a readable manner around a circle). He also notes that 3D charts provide visual clutter without enhancing communication.

Later chapters focus on details of arrangement, labels, color, and highlighting: all of the nuances that make for superior graphic design. The text and illustrations are simple, basic, and clear, delivering the goods in a way that does not distract. I recommend it to all who seek such advice.

The second book, Information Dashboard Design, takes us to the next level. Sophisticated data mining can reveal complex relationships and provide new insights, but Stephen Few remains skeptical about the user-friendliness of many dashboards that seek to assemble just the right information to give people insight into key business structures and processes.

The author shows and comments on a dozen complex business-based dashboards. He considers what makes for good visual displays: all of the techniques discussed in the first book must now work together in an assemblage of multiple charts and tables that provide a single view.

The challenge is daunting. Timeframes can vary enormously, from snapshots of the moment to long historical perspectives. With no industry standard for how these items are to be assembled and presented, it is no wonder that many are poorly done.

The second half of the book focuses on details. It covers typography, color, information chunking, and splitting items off onto additional screens. All the techniques are described in simple, clear, readable text, punctuated, as in his earlier book, by questions posed to the reader.

Like many guidebooks written by others, including myself, these devote little space to testing. Only one page is devoted to testing your designs for usability. But at least that page is there. With the help of Few’s books, you should be able to produce effective designs, ready to be refined further by testing.