Having convictions, staying true to them, and stating them publicly doesn’t always endear you to people. I discovered today that Dennis A. Ross of Data Analysis & Research is definitely not a member of my fan club. In fact, he seems to to have his eye on the presidency of the “Stephen Few is a Douche Bag Club” — not my words but his (the douche bag part, that is). He wrote the following review of my book Information Dashboard Design, which I will quote here in full, without even charging Ross for the free advertising.
Review: Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few
Posted on August 2nd, 2007 by dennis
In short, this is a pretty good book by a pretty big douchebag.
The good: What’s nice about this book is that it incorporates a number of the classic information design perspectives (Tufte, Brath & Peters, et al.) and the basics of design. If Tufte makes art books, this is a kind of a Chilton manual. It is a solid primer for dashboard design, and has a few nuggets I have not found elsewhere. I have already recommended it to a couple of clients.
The bad: It can be ridiculously academic. There are some heavily stressed and frequently reiterated points that are sometimes impractical or of questionable value. If my client wants his logo in the upper right (some of the most valuable real estate on the dashboard according to Few), then by god he or she is going to get it there. Flashing. Scrolling. Animated. Whatever the !@#$ they want. Its not my job to convince them what good design is, or more frequently, screw up their corporate branding and presentation formats. He rails on against pie charts–and I understand his argument, but if my Fortune 50 VP of Sales wants a big !@#$ing pie chart with the first slice colored Barney-purple, they get it. It purely arrogant (not to mention financially detrimental) to try and lecture them on the value of bar charts in this crisis.
I am not sure why he is enamored with his “invention” of what he calls bullet graphs. They are worthless for presenting data in which you typically present lower numbers as a good thing–turnover ratio, call time wait. They are confusing for me, and I have been in the game 20 years, especially when multiple scales are involved.
The douchebaggery: The real fun comes on his website blogs at www.perceptualedge.com. This is where he rails against Xcelsius and Oracle and god knows what. Then supports an incredibly visually ugly product like Tableau. Don’t get me wrong, Herr Few is talented…but quite clueless in a practical sense (in addition to no statistical chops). These products can be improved, yes, but they are light years ahead of what we have been working with in the past 10 years. More importantly, these products exist to serve customer or client needs, NOT Few’s design sensibilities. As things evolve they will undoubtedly get better, with or without his help. For the vast majority of analysis and reporting, these products suffice in spades.
In an effort to understand Ross’ hostility, I went to his website. Even before finding examples of what he considers good dashboard design (all created with Crystal Xcelsius), had I not been on a mission, I would have departed the site immediately, based on the Web design alone. Here’s the bottom portion of the home page:
Now, on to his dashboards. Three examples can be found on Ross’ website. In the interest of space, I’ll show only one, but you might find them all worth a gander.
I’ll allow Ross’ words and these examples of his work to speak for themselves. Here is the response that I posted in response to his review of my book. I think I exercised a great deal of restraint.
It isn’t often that someone gets emotional enough in response to my work to call me a douche bag. Having never heard of you, I was curious why you were so hostile. Having looked at your website and reviewed your dashboards, which all appear to have been created with Crystal Xcelsius, I now understand. I would invite anyone who wants to see what you consider a well designed website and a well designed dashboard to visit your site at www.d-a-r.com/home.htm.
Keep giving your customers what they want, even when it doesn’t work, rather than taking responsibility as a consultant to add value. That may satisfy them for the moment, but it won’t help them in the least.
Author of “Information Dashboard Design”
P.S. Ross cites Edward Tufte as an exceptional information designer, which he definitely is, and even includes a link to Tufte’s discussion forum on his site. This puzzles me, because Tufte’s opinion of Ross’ dashboard’s would make mine seem kind.