Show Me the Numbers by Stephen Few

Great visualization advice, patiently explained.

Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten by Stephen Few, now in its second edition, is filled with 371 pages of analytical goodness (Analytics Press, ISBN 978-0970601971). I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I don’t own the first edition, which was published in 2004. But I didn’t really know who Stephen Few was until I started working with Xcelsius and somebody turned me onto his outstanding dashboards book, Information Dashboard Design, which was also recently revised into a second edition.

While Information Dashboard Design is focused on at-a-glance dashboards and their unique characteristics, Show Me the Numbers is more broadly focused and goes into extreme depth on both table and graph design. Like the dashboards book, Show Me the Numbers begins by laying a foundation with the science on how our brains perceive visual information, then builds its design principles on that foundation. Mr. Few is widely cited (or disparaged) as “the cranky guy that hates pie charts”. But his criticism of pie charts (and other poor visualization practices) is grounded in the science of visual perception, not his personal taste in visualizations.

A 371-page book may sound kind of scary, but it is broken down into fourteen chapters that can be easily digested. Mr. Few’s writing style is clear and easy to understand, although if you’re like me you’ll put the book down at the end of each chapter so you can think. The book is tool agnostic, so even if your primary tool is Microsoft Excel you’ll benefit from reading it.

The book is rather large, but it’s beautifully designed and constructed with lots of clear illustrations. If I traveled as frequently as I used to, I’d probably prefer a Kindle edition for portability. But an electronic edition does not exist. Mr. Few’s reading style lends itself to a comfortable reading chair and a cup of coffee, so I’m quite satisfied with the print edition. I am finding in my day-to-day work that I am slowly internalizing the wisdom of Show Me the Numbers. But it’s still a book that I open while in the middle of a project and one that I’ll take the time to read cover-to-cover again.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I purchased this book with my own funds. It was not a free review copy. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

What Does the Fox Say?

What does Andrew Fox have to say about dashboards?

What does the fox say?

With an ocean in between us, I’ve never met Andrew Fox in person. But it’s on my bucket list to do so.

Andrew has written some helpful insights about dashboarding. Timo Elliott found much to like in Andrew’s article, which was also cited in last week’s ASUG Weekly News Roundup.

What does Andrew Fox say? That dashboard designers need to find balance between the need for sticky- sometimes flashy- dashboards and good visual design.

In delivering easy to consume, information rich, actionable insights maximising the use of the real estate available on the consumption device you stand the greatest chance of adoption by the “floating” users.

A Hobbits Tale…  My journey in dashboards: From Flashy to Few and back again…
Andrew Fox, Pre Sales Principal at itelligence UK

There’s a lot of hard-earned insights about business intelligence and analytics on Andrew’s blog – you should bookmark it.

Andrew Fox on Social Media

Now go build some dashboards! Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow!

But really- what does the fox say?

What does the Ohio University Marching 110 say?

 

Information Dashboard Design, Second Edition by Stephen Few

Stephen Few releases a significant update to his classic dashboard design book.

Stephen Few has made significant contributions to the field of data visualization, publishing books like Show Me the NumbersNow You See It, and Information Dashboard Design. Drawing inspiration from experts like Edward Tufte and Colin Ware, Few has a real talent for bringing theoretical concepts to life in a practical way.

The first edition of Information Dashboard Design, published in 2006, completely changed my approach to building dashboards (see my review of the previous edition). The second edition of Information Dashboard Design (Analytics Press; Second Edition, 2013, ISBN 978-1938377006) is a significant revision and rewrite of its predecessor, with lots of new material. It is a reflection of how the world of data visualization has changed since 2006. None of the data visualization tools available at that time supported Edward Tufte’s sparklines or the author’s own bullet charts. Nor were there Apple iPhones (released in 2007) and iPads (released in 2010) to display analytics. The changes are also reflected in the subtitle, which is now “displaying data for at-a-glance monitoring” instead of “the effective visual communication of data.”

Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few book cover

What has not changed since 2006 is software vendors’ pursuit of gaudy impractical visualizations like exploding pie charts (see related article, A Few Words about Data Visualization in SAP BI 4.0).

Without a doubt I owe the greatest debt of gratitude to the many software vendors who have done so much to make this book necessary by failing to address or even contemplate the visual design requirements of dashboards. Their kind disregard for visual design has given me focus, ignited my passion, and guaranteed my livelihood for years to come.

Stephen Few
Acknowledgements for Information Dashboard Design

Although Few is well-known for his disdain of pie charts, his advice is grounded in the science of visual perception. He devotes entire chapters to sparklines and bullet charts. And he provides new guidelines for visualizing data on smartphones and tablets. The chapter “Putting it All Together” provides in-depth analysis of real dashboards submitted for a dashboard design competition. It’s very instructive to see multiple dashboards attempting to meet the same set of business requirements, with varying degrees of success. And the book concludes with “From Imaging to Unveiling,” a short but meaningful chapter about how to design for success. Not only is the content valuable, but the hardcover edition is beautifully rendered in color with high-quality materials.

This is a book about dashboard design- not implementation. It’s not written exclusively for technicians, but anyone who has an interest in bringing useful data visualization to life in their organization. Few’s goal is “eloquence through simplicity” and he achieves it with this new book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Choosing Dashboard Fonts

Although there are thousands of different fonts available, only a handful are truly timeless.

An important decision in designing a dashboard or other data visualization is the choice of a font. The most important characteristic of a dashboard font is that it should permit the dashboard user to view and process information quickly. It may seem boring as a designer to always reach for the same fonts. However, any novelty in a dashboard, whether a funky font or animation, can quickly become annoying when a dashboard is used on a daily basis. Older versions of Xcelsius, for example, limited the designer to a single font. Although that limitation was lifted in Xcelsius 2008, limiting the dashboard to one or two fonts is still a great first step in improved readability. Stephen Few offers the following advice:

You want a font that can be read the fastest with the least amount of strain on the eyes. Find one that works and stick with it throughout the dashboard. You can use a different font for headings to help them stand out if you wish, but that’s the practical limit.

Information Dashboard Design – Stephen Few – O’Reilly – 2006 – pp. 170-171

Remember that fonts with serifs, such as Times New Roman, give our brains clues and help us read faster. That is why most books are set with serif fonts. However, sans-serif fonts, such as Helvetica or its poor cousin Arial on Microsoft Windows, have a cleaner appearance. Monospaced fonts can help with the uniform display of numbers instead of proportionally spaced fonts; however, the standard Courier can be a bit boring.

Although there are thousands of different fonts available, only a handful are truly timeless. Take Helvetica, for example.

Last week, American Airlines announced a redesign of its logo and its livery. Gone is its previous logo, designed in 1967 by Massimo Vignelli. Considered by many logo designers to be a timeless classic, the retired logo used the Helvetica font, rendering AmericanAirlines as a single word in two bold primary (and, well, American) colors. You can read Massimo Vignelli’s thoughts of both the old and new logos in this BusinessWeek interview.

American Airlines new logo on planes
Photo credit: American Airlines

Massimo Vignelli and many other designers share their thoughts in the 2007 documentary Helvetica, which is currently available on Netflix as well as on DVD and Blu Ray at Amazon.com. Because I’m an engineer by training and not a visual designer, I found this documentary to be helpful even though it wasn’t specifically about dashboard design. I especially enjoyed viewing it again in light of the American Airlines redesign.

Helvetica served American Airlines well for over 40 years. I doubt that the dashboards we are building today will be in use 40 years from now, but we can still choose to be timeless instead of trendy in our visual designs.

What are some of your favorite fonts for dashboards?

Resources

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this web site above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. Also, some of the books I review were received as review copies and I’ve given my best effort to accurately disclose that information as part of the review. I am disclosing this information in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

A Few Words about Visualization in SAP BI 4.0

A few choice words about exploding pie charts and exploding egos.

Last week, I tweeted about a recent post on Stephen Few’s blog, a criticism of SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0, was conveniently posted during the week of SAP’s annual ASUG/SAPPHIRE conference.

It’s worth noting that the article was not written by Stephen Few himself, but one of his team members, Bryan Pierce.  Honestly, I was a bit nervous making my tweet, as 140 characters doesn’t give much space to convey whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with a tweeted link.  And by tweeting in this case, I’m giving free publicity with increased page views to a point of view I disagree with. But another Twitter user shared my sentiments.

Yep. An article criticizing BI 4.0 based on a marketing slide (shown below) with a dreaded pie chart. An exploding one, even. Here’s the offending slide.

And yes, it is offending. But there are two issues with this kind of reasoning.

First, the product has been judged using a single marketing slide and not a thorough evaluation. Just as we’ve heard of the “death of political journalism“, articles such as this one illustrate a similar death of technology journalism. Looking for on-line eyeballs during a vendor’s annual user conference is not much different than technology web sites trying to get hits for Usama bin Laden’s death. There’s intense pressure to obtain page views at any cost. A ratings bias takes precedence over any editorial bias.

Second, there is always tension between the capabilities of tools and the limitations of the people that use them. In other words, buying a set of expensive chef knives does not automatically qualify me to challenge Bobby Flay on The Iron Chef. Simply removing exploding pie charts from a product like Web Intelligence does not guarantee that I’ll create reports with effective visualizations. Neither does removing bullet points from Microsoft PowerPoint. No matter how many wizards Microsoft includes, I am still perfectly capable of creating ugly and ineffective slides if I don’t think about design.

In “The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs“, author Carmine Gallo reveals that you never see bullet points in a Steve Jobs presentation. And in “Information Dashboard Design“, Stephen Few encourages us to avoid pie charts, exploding or not, in favor of more effective visuals. We need books like this (and the experts who write them) to help us create our best work.

But we don’t need product reviews based on PowerPoint slides.

Interested in better visualizations and better business intelligence products? Join the engaging dialog unfolding in the comments of Perceptual Edge’s blog post, SAP BusinessObjects 4.0’s “Engaging New User Experience”.

Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few

A book review of Stephen Few’s Information Dashboard Design.

NOTE: Information Dashboard Design is now in its second edition, which I review here.

You can, as the adage goes, judge a book by its cover. Take, for example, the spartan cover of Stephen Few’s Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data. Designed by the author himself, it sets the tone for a book dedicated not to a specific tool or performance management methodology, but instead about improving how dashboards can most effectively present information.

Dashboards are currently the “in” thing to have. You’re simply uncool if your organization doesn’t have one. But let’s face it. Dashboards are often designed and built by IT geeks (of which I am one). And like the wagon wheel coffee table in When Harry Met Sally, many of our dashboard designs should be hauled out to the curb.

“Above all else, this is a book about communication”, writes the author. And Stephen Few delivers, taking the reader on a journey through an unlucky “thirteen common mistakes in dashboard design” (see Chapter 3). Based on research on how humans process visual information (see Chapter 4: Tapping Into the Power of Visual Perception), he lays down principles that shun the “bling” features that look cool in software vendor demos but fall short in actual use. Who knew that sometimes the best way to present numbers is in a, sigh, table instead of a bunch of space hogging speedometers (see Chapter 6: Effective Dashboard Display Media).

In my role of consultant, I am frequently handed a cocktail napkin (less frequently a requirements document) that already lays out the design. So my job is more about following directions, not offering constructive guidance. However, this book has strongly influenced how I approach my work. Though not specifically about Xcelsius (although it is mentioned), I recommend Information Dashboard Design to my students whenever I teach SAP’s Dashboards or Xcelsius 2008. I believe its insights will change how you can improve your dashboards by striving for the effective visual communication of data.

Resources

Stephen Few’s web site is Perceptual Edge. His books can be purchased at Amazon.com and other on-line retailers.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I purchased this book with my own funds. It was not a free review copy. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”