Book Review: Now You See It
by Mike Steedle, on Nov 2, 2009 9:02:01 PM
At the beginning of June, Stephen Few released Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis, his first book since 2006's Information Dashboard Design. Divorced from the strict context of dashboards, it focuses on fundamental techniques for presenting data for analysis. Here is his description from the book cover:
Before you can present information to others, you must know its story. “Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis” teaches simple, fundamental, and practical techniques that anyone can use to make sense of numbers. These techniques rely on something that almost everyone has—vision—using graphs to discover trends, patterns, and exceptions that reside in quantitative information and interactions with those graphs to uncover what the discoveries mean.
Although some questions about quantitative data can only be answered using sophisticated statistical techniques, most can be answered using simple visualizations—quantitative sense-making methods that can be used by people with little statistical training. Until “Now You See It,” no book has taught the basic skills of data analysis to such a broad audience and for so many uses, even though the need is huge, critical, and rapidly growing.
For starters, this book is HUGE, with a larger footprint than Tufte hardcovers and nearly thrice the thickness of Information Dashboard Design, so do not order it, expecting to throw it in your laptop case to take your next trip. I actually laughed when I opened the box from Amazon.
It is organized into large sections on Building Core Skills for Visual Analysis and Honing Skills for Diverse Types of Visual Analysis, with a short section at the end for Further Thoughts and Hopes. The first section is like an extended introduction to data visualization vocabulary, concepts, and patterns, while the second digs into different types of analysis, like time series, part-to-whole, deviation, distribution, and correlation. The structure is logical, and the book flows well, as a result.
Every chapter is beautifully presented and rich with examples that both illustrate Few's points and help you remember them. Absent the emphasis on dashboards, he has the opportunity to delve deeply into visual representations that are not necessarily well-suited for the precious real estate of executive information systems. So if you have read IDD, don't worry - there is not a lot of repeat information.
It's likely that several of the techniques will jump off the page as being applicable to data you have been studying for a long time, but you just have never thought to look at them in the ways described in the book. As you read, it's difficult to resist the temptation to go to your computer to play, spinning your data to look at them differently.
As you have no doubt heard Few opine, many popular Business Intelligence tools do not possess the out-of-the-box capabilities to present data how he would like, so it was fun to read about some slightly more unusual chart types and figure out how to create them in BI applications that I use. At this point, I don't think any single piece of software can be expected to encompass every possible representation, though most of the examples in the book can be approximated in Excel.
I strongly recommend Now You See It to anybody for whom analyzing data is a part of their jobs. I finished reading it months ago, but can still list, off the top of my head, several lessons and ideas I got from the book. Though some of the topics discussed, like geo-spatial analysis, may not be relevant for the data you use at work or the type of analysis you are capable of conducting with your current collection of tools, I can carry on a fifteen-minute conversation about something as universal as usage of bar charts.
For a more representative preview, Few has published an excerpt from Chapter 5, Analytical Techniques and Practices, on his site:
Several other Visual Business Intelligence Newsletters from 2008 and later also contain lessons and examples that appear in the book.