Information Dashboard Design – Laying the Foundation of Data Visualization [Review]

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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.

How do the slices at the back compare to the slices at the front? Hard to tell?

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?

If you see no number or 21, you might have some form of colorblindness.

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.

We can still use red to denote bad” but the icon displays this to colorblind users without relying completely on color.

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.

Final Thoughts

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.

Happy Qliking!  

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Johan van den Bosch March 7, 2017, 9:36 am

    Hi Aaron,

    Nice read! Both the book and your post. I’m sure it’s a test, and I also think the colorblindness test states a 24 instead of 21. And that makes a lot more sense since 24 is the mirrored value of 42 which is of course the answer to life, the universe and everything.

    But maybe I’m just wrong…


  • Barry March 7, 2017, 3:13 pm

    Hi Johan,

    The color blindness test says 74. Now get back to work! 😉


  • Aaron Couron March 7, 2017, 3:18 pm

    Looks like Johan might be colorblind, lol.

  • Total Anonymous because my boss is monitoring me March 7, 2017, 3:54 pm

    Hi Aaron and Barry,

    Yes he must be totally colorblind and not working at all…. Total fake, cannot read a simple sign 😀

    Absolutely someone else

  • Keith March 7, 2017, 3:57 pm

    A good read for sure. He published a 2nd edition in 2013, with more “good” examples. (as opposed to the first edition which contained mostly “what NOT to do”)

  • Karl Pover March 7, 2017, 4:35 pm

    Great read Aaron. I second Keith’s comment that even if you’ve read the first edition, the second edition is worth reading.

    Also, anybody remember Stephen Few being jeered at a general session in Qonnections when he said pie charts were evil? (I’m paraphrasing and exaggerating his words a bit, but just a bit.) It was the same year QlikView came out with new flavors of pie charts and the funnel chart, which were both quite horrible. Nonetheless, I do believe we have him to thank for the default minimal chart design, the mini-chart, the pastel color basket, the trellis chart, and the box plot wizard in the QlikView version that was released the following year.

  • Aaron Couron March 7, 2017, 4:44 pm

    @Karl ~ I didn’t know he spoke at Qonections. I did not go whatever year that was. I would say that Qlik Sense is even more influenced by his teachings as it has ditched 3D all together, default colors are less saturated than QlikView and borders and many of the “extra ink” on the dashboards has been eliminated. Thank you for the context!

    @Johan @Barry ~ You guys are too much.

    • Cotiso Hanganu March 22, 2017, 12:18 pm

      Yes, Stephen Few attended (actually twice) Qonnections before 2010.
      And yes, he said the pie chart is “the worst visualization invented by human being”
      And during a workshop on layout where he attended, together with HIC and Shima, there was a polemic talk regarding the 3D view of a pie, especially considering HIC was proud he personally developed the shadowing algorithm of the cool looking 3D pie…

  • Dafi March 12, 2017, 9:09 am

    Hi Aaron,
    Glad that you published that post. I have purchased the book a few of years ago, and it really helped me to learn a better practice than I was exposed to by “traditional” QlikView projects which I was a team member of. So I hope that your post would expose more developers to Few’s standards. I’m working with Sense now, and find myself looking at Few’s previous publishing based on “Show Me the Numbers” (don’t have the book yet). This is due to the fact that you still need to know which visualization to pick. I would be happy if you could post some recommendations about it in the context of Sense. I Appreciate the efforts you put in compiling such helpful posts!

  • Aaron Couron March 12, 2017, 2:29 pm

    Dafi ~ I haven’t read Show Me the Numbers yet. But I will take that under advisement. Just FYI, right now I am reading Alberto Cairo’s Book: the Truthful Art. Maybe I’ll come back to Few after that. Thanks for the comment.

  • Dafi March 12, 2017, 6:15 pm

    Thanks for referring me to the book. Looks very interesting & relevant..

  • Aaron Couron March 22, 2017, 3:40 pm

    @Cotiso ~ You are blowing my mind right now. Seeing Stephen Few and HIC debate the legitimacy of the 3D Pie Chart would be a truly entertaining sight. That is stuff of legends, my friend.

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