Information Dashboard Design

Stephen Few

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Dashboards have become popular in recent years as uniquely powerful tools for communicating important information at a glance. Although dashboards are potentially powerful, this potential is rarely realized. The greatest display technology in the world won't solve this if you fail to use effective visual design. And if a dashboard fails to tell you precisely what you need to know in an instant, you'll never use it, even if it's filled with cute gauges, meters, and traffic lights. Don't let your investment in dashboard technology go to waste. This book will teach you the visual design skills you need to create dashboards that communicate clearly, rapidly, and compellingly. Information Dashboard Design will explain how to: Avoid the thirteen mistakes common to dashboard design Provide viewers with the information they need quickly and clearly Apply what we now know about visual perception to the visual presentation of information Minimize distractions, cliches, and unnecessary embellishments that create confusion Organize business information to support meaning and usability Create an aesthetically pleasing viewing experience Maintain consistency of design to provide accurate interpretation Optimize the power of dashboard technology by pairing it with visual effectiveness Stephen Few has over 20 years of experience as an IT innovator, consultant, and educator. As Principal of the consultancy Perceptual Edge, Stephen focuses on data visualization for analyzing and communicating quantitative business information. He provides consulting and training services, speaks frequently at conferences, and teaches in the MBA program at the University of California in Berkeley. He is also the author of Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten. Visit his website at

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I'm working to redesign a legacy toolset and I'm looking at how to better display some information both presentationally and semantically.

The data hierarchically in nature but has properties that need to be readily visible to users. The desired layout is similar to below.

Seq     Item Name         Min  Max  - Anything under here isn't shown
 1      Identifier         1    1     (Required)
 2      Name               1    1
  2.1    First Name        1    1
  2.2    Middle Name       -    -     (Optional but unlimted)
  2.3    Last Name         1    1
 3      Age                -    1     (Optional)

At the moment this is one entire table, and the intdenting for the Sequence (Seq) number is achieved by inserting additional table cells to kind of bump everything across to the right.

The challenge I have is figuring out how to effectively display this information.

First of all is this tabular data? I would say no, as the hierarchy is important, and the 'columns' are merely attributes of the item in each 'row'.

If it isn't tabular, what is it and how would that be done ? I would personally argue this is a set of nested UL lists - the sequence number is optional and not always a number. If its a set of lists, that will indent sublists correctly, but what is the best way of presenting the short attributes?

If it is a table, what is the best way to present the semantic existance of the hierarchy in the table?

Why not both? A tree grid is a good way to represent tabular data that also conforms to a hierarchy.

This is one such example.

However, having used Extjs on two very large projects, my own personal recommendation is to stay away from it if you're going to be producing a large application. While it may be fine for a one-off grid, I personally find that it's poorly implemented and can become more cumbersome as the size of the project increases. However, it is very feature rich, so the examples panel may give you some more ideas on grids (tables) that might help you.

Keep in mind that you should always be asking yourself, "what questions are my users trying to answer?" Then, ask yourself, "which graphical devices give the clearest and simplest path to answering that question?"

One book that really helped me with these questions was the dashboard design book. Even though you may not be building a dashboard, it has many UX techniques and theories that have made it easier for me when selecting the appropriate UI element (with respect to data).

Hope that helps...

I'm looking to create a static dashboard viewable in a web browser. And I'd like to create something like what Stephen Few does in his book Information Dashboard Design. (see example at bottom)

  1. Ggplot2: Shouldn't be any issue producing the graphs below, right?
  2. Dashboard Layout: Is grid suitable? Or should I lay things out in html/css?

If grid can do this easily enough, do you know of any good resources for learning how to us it? I've read the manual but I'm not finding it too helpful. I've seen the LearnR blog's ggplot2 sales dashboard (it uses grid) and I'm having trouble understanding the grid and layout part of things.

dasboard sample

I think your html/css-direction might be a really smart move.

It might be easier to get an awesome layout using using Open Office draw and just link to the images, checking off the link box when insterting them for the first time. Open Office supports export to pdf making it usefull for reporting.

Even if it was straight forward to programaticly create a stunning document layout in R, I'm not sure it would be worth the time and effort.


What books or online resource would you recommend for learning how to do advanced charts and dashboard design with Reporting Services?

I am very partial to Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data. I also found, having read that book, that COLOURLovers was a great place to get very nice palettes of colo(u)rs which are part of the recommendation in the book.

Personally, I'm not sure SSRS is quite right for dashboard applications (I have worked on a implementation of SSRS) though SSAS certainly is great from the reporting/warehouse side IMHO, but the SSRS story doesn't seem to fit... just my anecdotal opinon.

It's a big topic so good luck!


I have read most of the SSRS 2008 books on the market and would highly recommend two - they both have decent amounts of content around charts and gauges

Applied Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Reporting Services By Teo Lachev

Microsoft® SQL Server 2008 Reporting Services by Brian Larson