Data Visualization — Few’s Examples

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I attended a United Way meeting last week that was hosted at an overburdened county government agency site in south Columbus. The gist of the meeting was discussing the bleakness of the economy and what that could or should mean to the work of the committee. The head of the government agency did a brief presentation on what the agency does and what they are seeing, and the presentation included the distribution of a packet of charts with data the agency tracks.

I was struck by how absolutely horridly the information was presented. A note at the bottom of each chart indicated that the same staff member had compiled each chart. Yet, there was absolutely no consistency from one chart to the next: the color palette changed from chart to chart (and none of the palettes were particularly good), a 3-D effect was used on some charts and not others (3-D effects are always bad, so I suppose I’d rather inconsistency than having 3-D effects on every chart), and totally different chart types were used to present similar information. On several of the bar charts, each bar was a different color, which made for an extremely distracting visualization of the information. 

I glanced around the room and saw that most of the other committee members had furrowed brows as they studied the information. It occurred to me that there was an undue amount of mental exertion going on to understand what was being presented that would have been better spent thinking through the implications of the information.

Ineffective presentation of data can significantly mute the value of a fundamentally useful report or analysis.

Show Me the NumbersLater that evening, I found myself popping around the web — ordering my own copy of Stephen Few’s Show Me the Numbers, and, later, poking around on Few’s site. Specifically, I spent some time on his Examples page, browsing through the myriad before/after examples that clearly illustrate how the same information, presented with the same amount of effort, but using some basic common principles, dramatically reduce the mental effort required to understand what is going on.

It’s a fascinating collection of examples. And Show Me the Numbers is a seminal book on the topic.

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  1. Those examples really were good, well bad and good. I need to go look at some of the slides I’ve created and fix them up. Guess I also have a new book to add to the reading list.

  2. I like Stephen Few’s books, because unlike Edward Tufte, Few has a pragmatic approach. He knows that we’re not all academicians, that we have to knock things out quickly, and that we don’t have Illustrator etc. on our desktops, much less time to learn and use such fancy packages.

    Few’s other book, Information Dashboard Design, applies these lessons directly to effective displays of business information.

  3. Pingback Dashboard Development and Unleashing Creative Juices | Gilligan on Data by Tim Wilson

  4. First, S. Few has an MS degree in relgious studies, w/no training in a relevant field. Next, he was written 3 books, 2 are self-published including the latest one (Analytics Press is a company of 1, look it up on DBS), the one by O’Reilly contains nothing beyond a ch.2 of a typical statistics book on information display. He uses the fallacy of expert by association using name dropping of true experts like Tufte, etc, who have done actual research, which Few apparently has not (I assume since he did not refute the challenge on his blog and no research can be found w/ his name on it). Since Jon needs a simple explanation apparantly (i.e. non-academic), perhaps its a good book for you, but I hope you are not in charge of designing interfaces that “must work” in the real world.

  5. @RU Kidding Obviously, I’m a big fan of Stephen Few — not based on his academic credentials, but based on the fact that he has taken a fairly methodical approach to applying the principles laid out by Tufte, combined with common sense. Maybe that’s dumbing things down too much, but when I compare Few-less, unguided data visualizations with data visualization that has employed some of the basic principles he espouses…it seems like things get a whole lot more clear.

    I’ve seen very little out-and-out criticism of Few. I’d love to broaden my perspective to understand where he misses the mark.

  6. Stephen Few does a great job and these examples are very useful. Note that Few found a very effective way to communicate data presentation and visualization techniques. As a professor, I have my business intelligence students use the Few examples to understand how to critique existing cases. This process helps them to understand the impact of certain design decisions – the impact on the business user. Ultimately presentation and visualization techniques are meant to communicate information – to the business – not to IT. The Few cases, and the overall approach they embody, have proven to be very effective in an academic setting.

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