Stephen Few at InfoViz 2007

Stephen Few shares with us his capstone presentation that he delivered at InfoVis 2007. If you follow his newsletter or his blog (you should) there is nothing really new but, if you don’t, this is a good summary of his views regarding information visualization.

I’d like to comment a few points.

Knowing how to use Excel or some other software that can be used to analyze data is not the same as knowing how to make sense of data. (p. 9)

I strongly agree with this. It is not about charts (it never is): it is about data analysis and communication/presentation skills. If you don’t know how to do something in Excel, just ask. But you must know what to do with the data. This means higher literacy (numeracy/graphicacy), something that you shouldn’t expect to get from the (mass market) software industry. Some months ago I contributed to a discussion about this problem in Few’s discussion board.

Despite the primitive nature of Excel’s visual analysis and charting functionality, it is used more than any other product to make sense of data and, in combination with PowerPoint, to present data to others. Almost everyone who takes my table and graph design course wants to know, more than anything else, how to apply the data presentation principles that I teach to Excel. (p. 37)

Excel is the de facto standard in information visualization for the masses. We should start from here, showing how to apply general principles and best practices in Excel, because only a very small fraction of office users will ever be able to use another, more sophisticated, charting tool. They need to see how these principles impact their lives. They want to seat at their desks and apply these principles immediately.

I’ve found consistently in my work that, when people are shown effective alternatives to the bad visualizations that are common and familiar, they easily recognize the difference. We need to combat the bad visualizations that dominate the market by exposing people to visualizations that really work. (p. 42)

This is the only way. Principles and best practices don’t matter if people can’t see how/why they work. If someone tells me how “prettier” are my charts (than the standard charts they see…) it means that I failed somewhere and I have to start all over again. Charts, and data analysis in general, are about insights, about return on investment, about more bang for the buck. Beauty is a by-product of function.

Not all displays, however, require the high resolution of the printed page. And something you can’t do with the printed page is interact with the data, which is critical to data exploration and analysis. (p. 61)

Jacques Bertin wrote something like this 40 years ago. A chart must allow some level of interaction because knowledge is constructed by the chart user, not by the chart designer.

Tufte’shas locked himself out of much of the fine work that has been done in our field because of his uncompromising prejudices, which has cause his relevance to our work to decline. (p. 61)

I understand this, but probably his views still hold value because of his “uncompromising prejudices” and, let me tell you, I like them. Tufte is the best starting point to understand information display. At some point you must leave him because he has no answers to our real-world questions, but there are some good sources around to fill in the gaps. What I really, really don’t like is the “Tufte would be proud” / “what would Tuft say” syndrome.

There are some points that I view differently. I wouldn’t remove pie charts from our tool set. I think they have a minor role in information visualization, they are more a “design device” than a real chart but I like to use them in very specific situations. Also, I am not sure if B&W dashboards can be an alternative to all those bad examples that Few loves to hate. I believe we can have a functional use of color that can be attractive to the non-initiated (we’ll discuss this one of these days).

We need a coherent and real world problem solving perspective of information visualization in the corporate sector. Do you think Few has the answer?