Book Review: The Big Book of Dashboards, by Steve Wexler, Jeffrey Shaffer, and Andy Cotgreave

This is the second in a series of book reviews about data dashboards. In the first review, we looked at Information Dashboard Design: Displaying data for at-a-glance monitoring by Stephen Few.

The Big Book of Dashboards: Visualizing Your Data Using Real-World Business Scenarios (2017) is the perfect complement to Stephen Few’s Information Dashboard Design.  While Few is deliberate and methodical in approaching dashboard design, the Big Book of Dashboards starts with succinct, practical design advice and moves on to a smorgasbord of examples or “scenarios.”

The authors take an expansive view in defining dashboards, saying “A dashboard is a visual display of data used to monitor conditions and/or facilitate understanding.” Dashboards can be digital or analog and include interactive displays, PDFs, wall-mounted screens, and mobile applications.

Design advice appears at the beginning and end of the volume, with scenarios in the middle. The design advice lends itself to sequential reading, while the scenarios are meant to be sampled, rather than read end-to-end.

The early design discussion covers the standard topics in thirty-five pages: pre-attentive attributes, types of data, encoding data, color, common charts, and the limits of the visual system. This provides the basics needed to understand the scenarios.

The latter chapters continue the design discussions. There is an in-depth chapter on visualizing time, a critical data component for most dashboards. The authors review the various ways that time is used in dashboards, as well as introduce less common visualization techniques such as cycle plots, heat maps, bump charts, and jump plots.

The authors then discuss more controversial chart types, such as pie charts, donut charts, word clouds, and bubble charts. While none of these are currently preferred visualization techniques, they are commonly used and often requested, so it is important to include them in the discussion. The book ends with a visual glossary of chart types.

The twenty-eight scenarios cover a wide variety of situations and form the bulk of the book. The authors hope readers will apply the examples to their own workflows, as the readers think to themselves “Although my data isn’t exactly the same as what’s in this scenario, it’s close enough, and this dashboard really does a great job of helping me and others see and understand that data. I think we should use this approach for our project as well.”

The scenarios cover common situations encountered by business users, who are the main audience of the book. They are developed from submissions of the authors and others and include topics such as:

  • Comparing Individual Performance with Peers
  • Course Metrics Dashboard
  • Are We on Pace to Reach Our Goals?
  • Multiple Key Performance Metrics
  • Showing Year-to-Date and Year-over-Year at the Same Time
  • Showing Actual versus Potential Utilization
  • Economy at a Glance

Each scenario follows a pattern, with minor variations. There is a description of the Big Picture, How People Use the Dashboard, Why the Dashboard Works, and Author Commentary, where author refers to the book’s authors and not the original designer.

When analyzing Why the Dashboard Works, the authors evaluate the dashboard elements and the dashboard as a whole. If necessary, they outline alternative approaches to the design. In the Author Commentary, the authors discuss the design decisions. This gives the reader a deep dive into the many alternatives and decisions involved in dashboard design. Revealing this thought process is one of the most valuable contributions of the book.

The book concludes with a look to the future and a recognition dashboard design is not a one-off task. The authors note that “All Dashboards are incomplete …” They require constant attention to evaluate their effectiveness and their on-going utility to their users. To be effective, dashboard designers need to continually ask questions and keep innovating.

In summary, anyone interested in learning more about dashboard design can quickly come up to speed by reading Information Dashboard Design: Displaying data for at-a-glance monitoring to learn the theory and science-based principles of dashboard design and The Big Book of Dashboards: Visualizing Your Data Using Real-World Business Scenarios for succinct, practical design advice with a plethora of more recent designs and well-documented scenarios.


Big Book of Dashboards website

The Big Book of Dashboards: Visualizing Your Data Using Real-World Business Scenarios Amazon

The big session on the big book of dashboards YouTube video

How to Build World Class Dashboards – Steve Wexler YouTube video

Steve Wexler (Twitter: @DataRevelations)

Jeffrey Shaffer (Twitter: @HighVizAbility)

Andy Cotgreave (Twitter: @acotgreave)

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