Saturday, January 31, 2009

Information Dashboard Design

Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data

4 stars 
By Stephen Few
Publisher: O'Reilly
Pub Date: January 24, 2006
Print ISBN-10: 0-596-10016-7
Print ISBN-13: 0-596-10016-7
(Amazon US CA UK, Flipkart)
Stephen Few is a recognized expert in the area of the visual display of business intelligence information.

This book serves as an excellent basic primer on the good principles of displaying information on dashboards, typically business intelligence dashboards, such that information is presented in a clear, understandable manner.

Few expresses strong opinions, so it is likely that some will tend to disagree with his advice, more on emotional than on factual grounds. Especially so if you have been a practitioner in this area. But if you keep your personal/professional biases and dogmas aside, difficult though that may be, this book is an excellent primer on the topic. It is well written, amply illustrated with examples, and at 223 pages, short enough to be read in one go. To truly grasp the effective principles of information dashboard design you would and should go back to the book from time to time to read up on specific sections. And of course, read up on the ample literature that already exists in this area. There are some excellent sites that educate, and several books covering this topic.

Despite everything that's good with this book, there are two shortcomings in my opinion.
  1. The first is its silence on a fairly recent phenomenon, the increasing use of rich interactive visualizations, typically presented via the Flash technology. Good flash visualizations would need to combine not only the basics of information presentation, but also effective use of interactivity and animations, both of which are a common feature with Flash-based visualizations, and also, lamentably, much overused and abused by many vendors. The ability to animate is so often taken as license to go wild with hyperactive animations, with bar graphs that shoot up like sprouts from the x axis, with lines that do a manic jig before settling down, with pie charts that unfurl like some Japanese fan, and more.
  2. The second is the lack of coverage on good design principles for small displays, like the ones found on smartphones like the BlackBerry, iPhone, and others. What works on a traditional 1024x768 sized monitor would not work on a smartphone screen. This area is important for two reasons. The first is that the emergence of the iPhone and its increasing acceptability as a viable enterprise smartphone means that visually rich interfaces can now be rendered on smartphones. This has been possible with Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices, but the iPhone brings a whole new dimension in usability. The second is that 3G speeds mean that more content, with more graphics can now be sent over the wire to smartphones, and not be restricted to only SMS-es, or text alerts, or plain vanilla emails.
Possibly, hopefully, these will be addressed in a subsequent edition. Consider that Flash broke into enterprises in a meaningful manner only after 2005/2006, and the iPhone released in 2007, and was opened up to third party developers only in early 2008. So these two lacunae are more sort of inevitable than deliberate.

While not explicitly so, the book is divided into basically three sections. The first section talks about the commonly made mistakes when designing dashboards. Thirteen mistakes are listed, some obvious and most painfully common like "Exceeding the boundaries of a single screen", "Introducing meaningless variety", "Arranging the data poorly", "Choosing a deficient measure", "Highlighting important data ineffectively or not at all", etc... Each listed mistake is described, with one or several illustrative examples from actual dashboards, and with frequent suggested improvements or redesigns of the charts and graphs.

The second part, for my money, is perhaps the most useful section. This section is however only a single chapter - "Tapping Into the Power of Visual Perception", where the cognitive underpinnings of how we perceive and process information are laid out, of how short term memory works, of pre-attentive processing of information and how information can be laid out and formatted such that pre-attentive processing kicks in, which is much faster than attentive, deliberate processing. "In Information Visualization: Perception for Design, Colin Ware suggests that the preattentive attributes of visual perception can be organized into four categories: color, form, spatial position, and motion."

Those familiar with Few's writings will be well aware of his annoyance with pie charts and their uselessness in effectively conveying information. He writes, "The truth is, I never recommend the use of pie charts. The only thing they have going for them is the fact that everybody immediately knows when they see a pie chart that they are seeing parts of a whole (or ought to be). Beyond that, pie charts don't display quantitative data very effectively. As you'll see in Chapter 4, Tapping into the Power of Visual Perception, humans can't compare two-dimensional areas or angles very accurately--and these are the two means that pie charts use to encode quantitative data." ... "Humans tend to underestimate differences in 2-D areas, and hence you must be wary of using 2-D areas of different sizes to encode quantitative values--especially on a dashboard, where speed of interpretation is essential." He suggests that for most purposes bar charts are more effective.

The final three chapters deal with advice and examples of creating effective dashboards. His advice is that "The best way to condense a broad spectrum of information to fit onto a dashboard is in the form of summaries and exceptions", and to "eliminate all unnecessary non-data pixels", and to "de-emphasize and regularize the non-data pixels that remain."

Make no mistake - you are not going to become a pundit in effective dashboard and chart designing after reading this book. But this is an excellent start.

One note: this book lists for Rs 1800 or so on Landmark (, and does not seem to be widely available in India. So, try reading this book online from Safari (, or grab a limited preview of the book on Google Books.

Other links:
If this topic interests you, there are many, many more books to peruse: