Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few (Second Edition)

The second edition of Stephen Few’s book on making dashboards came out about two weeks ago. I read it, not having read the first edition. In some ways Few is just Tufte for MBAs, but he does have bullet graphs in addition to sparklines, and he focuses on and provides examples of dashboards.

book cover

The cover of the second edition (above) is way better than the cover of the first edition (below) because it features a complete example of the style of dashboard that Few advocates. If you understand everything on the cover above, you understand the entire book. It’s a really neat sort of meta-visualization. This old cover is rather awful:

book cover (first edition)

The other great thing, distinct to the new edition, is that it features multiple examples of dashboards for teachers, displaying student data. Neat! Mr. Few facilitated a dashboard design competition in 2012, which I had been unaware of. The new edition features the two best submissions, some more examples that weren’t as good, and Few’s own creation, which I think would look a lot better with different color choice. (You can see a lot of this content on Few’s blog, as linked.) The education use case is very interesting to me. I’d like to see the principles of this book applied to, say, NYC’s ARIS data system. I wonder how other education data system vendors’ products stack up!

I think Stephen Few is fundamentally right about dashboard design. The only thing I would add or discuss further is the primacy of analysis. Said another way, the dashboard should focus on communicating reality, not on communicating metrics. People who think they know what metrics they’re interested in are very often wrong. There may be better metrics, or (more likely) it may be that finding a way to present more of the data without reducing it to metrics allows communication of a more complete picture. This could require the use of perhaps more expressive, possibly less conventional means even than sparklines and bullet graphs. But you should certainly know what’s in this book.

One thought on “Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few (Second Edition)

  1. A friend comments via email with some interesting balance for this discussion of Few’s viewpoints:

    “I feel that Stephen Few has been a negative influence on my work. His heuristics / aesthetics are so narrow as to be deterministic. The winning dashboards from the competition reflect this. They are carbon copies of one-another and Stephen’s own dashboards. The bullet chart is the answer to the graphical-theological quest to determine how many bar charts can fit on the head of a pin. His principles of visualization are completely stunted by his medium, in this case Excel.

    Embracing a mono-culture of data visualization completely ignores the possibilities for novel and unique works that open, interactive languages like Processing and D3 afford. Understanding the basics of perception and design is important, but Cleveland did a much more sophisticated job of that (without the reductionist dogma) in the early 90s with The Elements of Graphing Data and Visualizing data – Few is merely providing a watered down summary of these classics. Likewise, though Few is inspired by Tufte, his philosophy is an antithesis. Tufte championed the diversity of visualizations (e.g. Visual Confections: Juxtapositions from the Ocean of the Streams of Story) and breaking out of boilerplate graphics to create works integrating narrative, images, and art with data. (Tufte’s chapters on data-ink ratio and minimalism was a mere side-note to this broader work) Case in point: sparklines. Tufte invented that as a means of integrating graphics in-line within a text; i.e. a sparkline was conceived as a little chart (of any kind) that could replace a word within a sentence. Sparklines were a tool to construct mixed media / mixed technique (?), highly problem-specific visuals. In Few’s hands, a sparkline is the opposite – a mere cog for generic report-production, a means of pursuing data-density for the sake of data-density.”

    I can’t say I disagree!

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