|Summary of the Book|
|Review of Information Visualization|
|Review of Elements of Graph Design|
|Recommendations for Charts and Graphics|
|Perceptual Edge (Stephen Few)|
By Kai Willenborg, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – June 22, 2007
In this review, our author Kai Willenborg takes a personal look at the book Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few.
Design, Information: Information presentation
Stephen Few has over 20 years of experience as an IT innovator, consultant, and educator. Today, as Principal of the consultancy Perceptual Edge, Stephen focuses on data visualization for analyzing and communicating quantitative business information.
He also wrote Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten.
The book Information Dashboard Design, written by Stephen Few (see Author) and published in January 2006, gives a concise overview of the various aspects that should be considered when designing dashboards. Even the acknowledgements illustrate that many of these aspects are often neglected:
"Without a doubt I own 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 needs of dashboards."
The target audience of this book is user interface designers who design dashboards (visual designers and interaction designers). Since I assume that most developers will not take the time to read this book (although they should read it or a similar one), I have – in addition to this short review – compiled a comprehensive summary of most of the insights in the book. If you do not want to read the whole (unusually long) summary either, here is an overview of the contents of the book. Therefore, this review contains information about nearly all design recommendations in the book – however, of course, without the same background information and amount of illustration.
Clarifying the Vision
After giving an overview of the history of dashboards and of 12 typical dashboards taken from the Web sites of business intelligence vendors, Few explains the main characteristics of dashboards (size, objectives, quick information perception, and so on).
For details, see History, Current Situation, and Purposes
Variations in Dashboard Uses and Data
Then, after categorizing the different types of dashboards, Few discusses the design differences between strategic, analytical, and operational dashboards.
Furthermore, he illustrates the visual means for quickly and easily grasping the most important pieces of information: trends, comparisons, preevaluations, and arrangement.
For details, see Types of Dashboards, Enrichment of Visualization
Thirteen Common Mistakes in Dashboard Designs
There are several aspects concerning visualization consistency and the selection, precision, arrangement, and coloring of data that make its perception unnecessarily clumsy, misleading, or even impossible, for example, wrong context, precision, graphical representation, inconsistency, and distracting or misleading coloring. Few illustrates them by providing screenshots of the BI vendors' Web sites plus comments.
For details, see Most Common Design Mistakes
Tapping into the Power of Visual Perception
There are different means of visualizing qualitative and quantitative aspects of data, such as color, position, and form. Few discusses their possibilities and limitations. Furthermore, he illustrates several means (proximity, similarity, enclosure, and so on) of grouping data that belongs together.
For details, see Visual Perception
Eloquence Through Simplicity
Dashboards should be well organized, compact, specific, and customized, concentrating on critical information and reducing all distracting elements. Few shows the necessity and several means of emphasizing the important parts and reducing and de-emphasizing the rest. Examples of design violations are large logos and headers, unnecessary borders and colors, gradients and area gauges, and 3D charts, and others.
For details, see Eloquence Through Simplicity
Effective Dashboard Display Media
In this section, Few shows and discusses many charts, including single-value mini charts that fit into one table cell and icons. He illustrates how the same amount of space can be used for richer data visualization.
For details, see The Best Display Media, Further Chart Types and Parts
Designing Dashboards for Usability
After showing how to combine the display media previously mentioned compactly using table/chart combinations and (rarely) maps, Few describes the goals that should influence the layout decisions because there are options related to the information's meaning, consistency, aesthetics, and navigation – not to forget extensive and repeated testing.
For details, see Organizers, Organizing for Usability
Putting it all together
Finally, Few illustrates with four of his own and eight competitor dashboards how his design principles and recommendations can be used in actual dashboards.
For details, see Sample Dashboards
As already mentioned, I have compiled a more complete summary of the book. You will find it on an extra page.
Stephen Few has provided an easy-to-read and easy-to-understand book. He gives a concise overview of the various aspects that should be considered when creating good dashboards. He has provided good illustrations using screenshots and other pictures that give new insights and new inspiration.
Although I was already familiar with much of the content (since I myself have been working on dashboards for quite a few years), it is useful to have such a good collection of helpful design principles. The fact that external experts have identified similar design requirements as our company's user interface designers will help convince developers. Furthermore, the screenshots provide good examples of what is possible.
Although his minimalist visual design approach is convincing, in practice you often also have to take other design aspects into account, such as branding, marketing, consistency with other types of applications, display media (beamers, for example, require higher contrasts), accessibility (for example, font size, contrast, numbers in addition to charts), and available controls that compete with his designs.
Of course, there are further aspects of dashboards that the book does not cover, for example:
However, he refers readers to literature dedicated to these topics.
The book ends with a good index for reference.
I can recommend the book to all user interface designers, not only those who deal with dashboards and work centers but also to others because many design principles are not only valid for dashboards. Some of his ideas can help ensure that the screens of maintenance applications, where many attributes and parameters need to be maintained, are not crowded, thus making fewer tabs necessary.
Developers who might not be inclined to read a book of 200 or so pages might read this summary instead. Illustrative screenshots from the book could be added to make the summary more pleasant to read and easier to memorize, or (since most developers are visually oriented), a presentation could be held that visualizes the most important design ideas and recommendations in this book.