Book Review: Information Dashboard Design

Information Dashboard Design: Displaying Data For At-A-Glance Monitoring, by Stephen Few

This book, the second edition of this landmark work on designing dashboards for service to managers, executives, and others, is a reminder that aesthetics and usability are not enemies, but friends, in the design of informational graphics. In a work whose dry and sarcastic wit and whose approach to information design mirror that of the great Edward Tufte [1], we witness the foundations of what makes for pleasing and useful information graphics. The author combines a knowledge of gestalt psychology, advances in neurobiology, and insights from graphical design and the history of visualization, as well as a knowledge of the needs of contemporary business leaders and the capabilities of technology as it relates to the representation and acquisition of good data. To be sure, this combination of expertise is unusual and distinctive, but it has allowed him to be a forerunner in the field of information design, and a sharp critic of contemporary practice in terms of representing data on computer screens, which tends to be poor. I should note that the author is even less kind about contemporary practices in dashboards and in flashy graphics that hurt comprehension and that prevent people from seeing the correct patterns that result from data, which I view with particular frustration in my personal and professional life.

In terms of its contents, this book is direct and organized with one goal in mind: to promote eloquence in the presentation of data graphics through simplicity, for what use is data and information if it is not understood? After its introductory material, the book is divided into fourteen chapters. The first chapter clarifies what a dashboard is: “a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives, consolidated and arranged on a single screen so the information can be monitored at a glance (26).” The second chapter looks at thirteen common mistakes made in dashboard design, with plenty of actual examples from contemporary businesses. Further chapters examine such worthwhile topics as the needs that dashboards meet, the fundamental concerns of dashboard design, the power (and limitations) of visual perception, how to achieve eloquence through simplicity rather than pointless complexity, the advantages of graphics, an ideal library of graphs for use in dashboards (bar charts, sparklines, and bullet graphs, for example—how to design sparklines and bullet graphs get their own chapters), and what other media is worthwhile to display on dashboards. The last three chapters of the book examine critical design practices, an examination of well put-together dashboards, and the steps of dashboard design from conception to execution.

Admittedly, despite the wit and lovely and practical design work of this book, very few people are likely to read it. My own interest in the book’s contents springs from the fact that reporting and the design of reports is a large part of my job, although I do not consider myself either a skilled code developer or as a skilled artist. That said, this book is a stellar example, and not a solitary one, of the harmonious relationship between genuinely beautiful information graphics and their usefulness. Data graphics exist for a reason—to tell a story through data. Good dashboards tell this story clearly, present all the information that is necessary to be monitored on a regular basis, and alert the person receiving the reports that something is either amiss, or going particularly well, and is worthy of deliberate attention. It is the author’s hope, and one shared by many professionals like myself, that design practices for graphical information can be improved, so that people are more data literate, and so that practical benefit can trump flashiness as the principles that drive the practice of dashboard design. This is a worthwhile book in that end, even if it is targeted at a fairly small population, of which I fortunately happen to be a part of. This is a humorous and immensely worthwhile book that deserves close attention and implementation of its best practices among those peers of mine who work in dashboard design.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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