Information Dashboard Design

Book review of Information Dashboard Design, by Stephen Few. Published by O’Reilly, © 2006.

Information Dashboard Design, by Stephen Few, is, as he says himself, “above all else… a book about communication. It focuses exclusively on a particular medium of communication called a dashboard. In the fast-paced work of information technology (IT), terms are constantly changing. Just when you think you’ve wrapped your mind around the latest innovations, the technology landscape shifts beneath you and you must struggle to remain upright. This is certainly true of dashboards.”

For one, I agree that dashboard design is generally a poorly understood endeavor. Unless you’ve delved in to it, it’s complexities will not really reveal themselves. This is partly do to their dynamic nature. Perhaps this idea could have been expressed in fewer words than excerpted, above, however. But this essentially examples the tone and style of Few’s book: useful, yet occasionally a bit formal, wordy, or verbose.

information dashboard design bookThe book contains many visual examples of dashboards; good, bad and ugly. Chapter One – Clarifying the Vision, dives right in to them, providing a number of screen shots exampling a few more bad and ugly than good ones. This trend extends throughout the book, which is a little heavier on the negative than positive examples. This I take as implicit evidence of Few’s motives, which are respectable in themselves. If I had my way, however, I’d like more, many more, positive and exemplary dashboard design examples.

That said I could not find one point Few makes that I could, or would want to, contend with. All points are valid and necessary to anyone entering—key word, entering—Information Dashboard Design. Though not designed and marketed for business management types specifically, it does seem especially well suited to them. And it is certainly useful for graphic designers newly navigating the quick currents, changeable weather, and reef-ridden dashboard design waters.

Of the many useful things about Few’s book, I particularly appreciate his emphasis on design basics, as this, apparently, is where many dashboards (to 2006) go awry. Chapter Four – Tapping Into the Power of Visual Perception, helps ensure that none who reads his book and heeds its direction will design or produce dashboards that fail from poor design. This chapter is sub-divided in to topics of

  • Understanding the limits of short term memory
  • Visually encoding data for rapid perception
  • Gestalt principles of visual perception

Though maybe not a very dramatic example, one of particular personal interest is Few’s examples of design essentials:

“Visually Encoding Data for Rapid Perception

Preattentive processing, the early stage of visual perception that rapidly occurs below the level of consciousness, is tuned to detect a specific set of visual attributes. Attentive [conscious] processing is sequential, and therefore much slower.”

Few presents a figure of four rows of apparently random numbers of equal grayscale value (a medium gray). He then asks that we determine the number of 5’s in the sequence. “How many could you find?” A few. The actual number would require a careful count.

“The list of numbers did not exhibit any preattentive attributes that you could use to distinguish the fives from the other numbers.” Another example of the same number sequence is presented, only now with a darker color value for the 5’s. As expected, they’re easy to see and count. This, says Few, is “due to their differing color intensity (one of the preattentive attributes we’ll discuss below).” A little simplistic for an experienced designer, yet an indispensable concept for the new or non-designer, even if the example is less dramatic than the language.

As you can see, Few’s example will not be news for an educated designer. But he elaborates:

“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. For our present interest related to dashboard design, I’ve reduced his larger list of 17 preattentive attributes to the following 11:

  • Color
    • Hue (e.g. color)
    • Intensity
  • Position (2-D Location)
  • Form
    • Orientation (line direction)
    • Line length
    • Line width (thickness)
    • Size
    • Shape
    • Added marks (cross amidst vertical lines exampled)
    • Enclosure (line in a box amidst lines)
  • Motion (Flicker)”

In other words, forming a design pattern and then differentiating one, for a specific emphasis, to form a sub-pattern if necessary, for “preattentive attributes.” Again, an indispensable set of design principles are called out. I would only like them connected to dashboard design examples.

The most useful distinctions Information Dashboard Design provides is in their “roles,” which I’d call purposes, as he’s referring to graphics and not people:

  • Strategic
  • Analytical
  • Operational

This is an essential distinction that seems obvious once you work with it in mind. Yet which, like similar ones following it in Few’s book, might not be so obvious beforehand.

Another principle that I hadn’t previously integrated in to my thinking about dashboard design, yet have since reading Information Dashboard Design, is cited from Edward Tufte. In Chapter Five – Elegance Through Simplicity, Few draws on Tufte’s “data-ink ratio” precept for digital application:

“Key Goals in the Visual Design Process

Edward R. Tufte indroduced a concept in his 1983 classic: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information that he calls the ‘data-ink ratio.’ When quantitative data is displayed in printed form some of the ink that appears on the page presents data, and some presents visual content that is not data (a.k.a. non-data)… He then applies it as a principle of design: ‘Maximize the data-ink ratio, within reason. Every bit of ink on a graphic requires a reason. And nearly always that reason should be that the ink presents new information.'”

Putting It All Together

The real protien of Few’s book is in the last three chapters, particularly in 6, Effective Dashboard Display Media, and 8, Putting it all Together, which delivers his juiciest positive examples. Here are the examples that, one might argue, should be nearer the beginning: those Few would design (and has designed) himself, following all of the principles he presents. Then again, I guess saving the best for last serves those right-handed book store browsers, who thumb last pages first first (as we often do magazines)—design is all about actual use, not just intended use.

information dashboard example

Though not without its flaws (and what book is?), for someone like me who, having produced many simple info graphics before, wanted a little more depth of information and examples, it is very useful. For those with no info graphic or design experience, it is indispensable. For those seeking the depth of information required to deal with considerations related to fully dynamic info graphics in Information Dashboard Design, you may be left somewhat wanting, yet not disappointed.

In all I recommend Few’s book highly, provided you aren’t looking to expand much existing dashboard design experience. All the ideas, and examples of them, are presented fairly concisely, even if some terms (such as “encoded,” to simply mean displayed) are used unconventionally, and in my option, too frequently.

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About Michael Cummings 31 Articles
Michael Cummings has been planning, designing, and producing interactive systems since 1995.
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