Last week, I read the first chapter of Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data (ISBN: 0-596-10016-7) by Stephen Few, courtesy of the publisher, and available as a free download on TechRepublic. I liked what I read, and purchased a copy of the book. I finished reading it today, and wanted to share a bit about it.
I enjoyed reading this book. I have studied usability theory for many years (primarily Jakob Nielsen, but other authors as well) and did not find anything in this book to contradict what I already knew. I found the information in this book to be very useful in and of itself. Even better, the information in this book is extremely applicable to other less-specific forms of communication, such as Web sites in general, print, and so on. The author does an excellent job explaining the best uses of different types of graphs, data display, how to separate different groups of information on the screen, on so on. The author also (wisely) completely sidesteps any mention of any particular software packages. Because of this, this book will remain pertinent for a very long time. There are many excellent examples of good data presentation as well as bad data presentation.
The book itself was rather lightweight. Significant portions of each page were whitespace and the book was printed in a rather large typeface. The book itself claims 223 pages, but the actual content was more like 200 pages. Furthermore, much of page space was taken up by illustrations (reasonable, since the book is about visual design). There were also many "filler" pages throughout. Overall, I definitely got the impression that the book had a lot of "puff" to it to help justify its price tag. I read the book in less than two working days, merely by reading while my Excel reports were running. I think it was well under two hours to finish the book.
This leads to my biggest problem with the book, which was that it was extremely basic. The examples in the book of bad design show that either the vast majority of the people writing interfaces are clueless, or that systems with poor usability sell better than those with good usability. Overall, there was very little new to me in this book. But that is me, and the proliferation of unusable systems shows that the industry could use an easy to read, basic guide on data presentation. If you are new to the field of data presentation, GUI design, or Web design, or think that a basic text on how to show data effectively would be helpful, this is the book for you. If you have experience and knowledge in usability already, you will probably find this book to be a little bit too simplistic and general for your needs.
Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.