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In this post, I will review Stephen Few’s Information Dashboard Design. Regarded by many as the “Bible of Dashboard Design”, if you design data analysis interfaces (ie. dashboards) for business users, you had better own this book.
Who is Stephen Few Anyway?
The name Stephen Few is well known in BI circles. He has been consulting in this space for over 30 years at Perceptual Edge. He has written several books on the subject and even introduced us to a new visual data object, the bullet graph.
So What is Information Dashboard Design All About?
The mission of Information Dashboard Design is to teach the dashboard designer how to analyze and create data visualizations that will be highly accurate, focused and helpful for business users. Few leads us down this path in a way that is, I dare say, entertaining. The language is plain and straightforward and there are plenty of pictures, which is part of the fun. Let me explain. The first three chapters walk us through the “What not to do” mistakes that designers commonly make. Some of the flaws are quite obvious when you see them. And a few are more subtle. The best way to read this section is to first examine the dashboard and try to guess what the mistake is and then read the explanation. I bet you can’t figure out all of them. I know that I didn’t. For example, an obvious problem would be the slanted or “3D” pie chart. We have all seen these.
The problem here is that because we are forcing a perspective on the chart to make it look three dimensional, we are shrinking the slices in the top (rear) of the chart and exaggerating the slices that are front-facing. Anything that distorts the perception of the visual is obviously a bad thing. Another not as obvious issue would be encoding value of good or bad solely with the colors green and red. With 8% of men and .05% of women having some form of color blindness (red/green being the most common), do you really want to design a visual that leaves out 1 in 12 people? ColourblindAwareness.org
There is no need to completely stop using green and red, but one suggestion would be to utilize an icon along with the color to signify direction or judgement.
After tearing several dashboards to shreds, the middle act of the book sets to establish the guiding concepts for good dashboard design. Few teaches how humans perceive data through visual objects, emphasizing how we quickly glean the data we need but also how we may rapidly forget that data as we click over to another page of the analysis. Simplicity is a consistent theme with Few as well. Any extra ink on the page only serves to distract the user from the important data. The remaining chapters deal with specific techniques and objects to build an effective dashboard. Here Few constructs dashboards that exemplify good design and gives detailed explanations as to why they are used and how the visualizations work together. He also introduces the Bullet Graph. This is a unique object because it works as a gauge but cleanly and concisely gives multiple context to the value while also allowing for a target value.
Information Dashboard Design is a quick read, but just completely packed with immediately actionable knowledge. In fact, I guarantee it will make you want to go back and redesign your own dashboards. *** Edit *** I have been made aware that there is a second edition of this book that includes more of the positive examples of good dashboard design. Here is a link: Information Dashboard Design: Displaying Data for At-a-Glance Monitoring Do you have a reading suggestion? Please let me know in the comments below.