Taunts from the playground

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:

Data Analysis and Research 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.

Dashboard by Dennis Ross

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.

Stephen Few
Author of “Information Dashboard Design”

Take care,

Signature

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.

19 Comments on “Taunts from the playground”


By Clint. August 3rd, 2007 at 6:34 pm

Hey Steve,
I think you were just link-baited and it may even be a case of a troll.
In any case, while I’m not totally convinced of the efficacy of bullet charts, surely they don’t deserve (nor do you) deserve the vitriol. I think there are two very public figures when it comes to visualization and Tufte doesn’t blog so it’s hard to bait him.

In any case, it’s certainly an amusing post…

By Stephen Few. August 3rd, 2007 at 6:42 pm

Clint,

You might be right, but I couldn’t resist responding. It isn’t everyday that I’m called a douche bag.

Steve

By Clint. August 3rd, 2007 at 6:56 pm

LOL,
I don’t think that’s happened to me since high school (what year is it again?). And, I would be hard pressed not to respond in kind to that tone if it were directed at me

BTW, I hope your seminar in June went well - work had me traveling so I was unable to attend as I had hoped to :~(

By derek. August 4th, 2007 at 3:22 am

Professor Tufte is, to put it bluntly, a way bigger douche bag then you, if being uncompromising toward the demands of pointy haired bosses is the measure of such.

But I don’t understand Mr Ross’s objection to your book. What value would there have been a in a book that said “You know when your client asks you for x, y and z in the product? Do that. Don’t worry about the fact that he’s coming to you for your expertise as a consultant, just let him be the judge of what makes a dashboard.”

That would be a very thin book, and one I could easily write, but I would find it hard to justify my value to my customer, if I wasn’t actually, you know, being someone who knows better than him. It’s in the nature of a book like yours that you are advising the advisors, and therefore are blunter in it than any of us would be to the actual client. I bet you’re not a “douche bag” to yours!

On pie graphs, a blogger called dsquared recently opined in the comments to this thread on Crooked Timber that pies were just fine and only “self-appointed design gurus” and their “arbitrary pronouncements” said otherwise. I was drafting a reply pointing out that findings of researchers llike William Cleveland were far from arbitrary, but then I thought “what’s the point?” and abandoned the attempt.

On the subject of bullet graphs, I lean toward the opinion of Jon Peltier, who says they’re “better than the speed dials they were invented to replace, and that’s about it” (not a direct quote, but my rough paraphrase from memory). Put that way, it’s evidence of how sweet-natured, accommodating, and willing to compromise with managers you are! :-)

By Rian. August 4th, 2007 at 7:26 am

Stephen - I work in user experience research and your books never leave my desk. So I don’t know about that “quite clueless in the practical sense” comment :)

By Joshwa. August 4th, 2007 at 1:33 pm

Don’t forget to turn the sound on when looking at his call center “dashboard”. Yikes!

By nixnut. August 5th, 2007 at 10:08 am

Light years ahead?? Not in any direction I’d care to go.
If the guy is incapable of advising his clients without coming across as arrogant and giving the impression of ‘lecturing’ he’s a poor communicator at best and a waste of money as a consultant otherwise.

By GleaM. August 6th, 2007 at 12:27 am

Funny.

Great patience exercise, mr. Few.

Keep on going, many of us are here to learn ;)

By Tony Rose. August 7th, 2007 at 8:31 am

Wow, where to start. To set the stage, I just finished Information Dashboard Design last night. I think this book is exceptional and will keep it close by. After reading this post, I applaud steve’s restraint and being the “bigger” person.

What concerns me is Ross’s mention of doing whatever the client wants, “barney” purple, pie charts, etc. These statements go to show that Ross is only interested in a pay check and being a “yes” person. We, as consultants, owe it to our clients to give them the best possible service utilizing optimal communication methods in dashboard design. Ultimately, it is the client’s decision on how they want a dashboard designed, but we must coach and counsel on the best techniques. I give Stephen a “attaboy” for his innovativeness and contribution to data visualization techniques.

Steve, keep up the great work!

By Andrew Mac. August 10th, 2007 at 8:15 pm

I just looked at Ross’ website. It appears that hislack of design capability is only exceeded by his lack of ethics when it comes to providing quality advice to his clients on good design practice rather than his short sighted pay cheque.

Balancing good design governance(and good data goverance for that matter) with business wishes is difficult. But if we all gave into every “business requirement/wish” from all quarters then large companies would be nothing but awash with both poor quality and inconsistent design leaving the business users accessing information from the various business processes or business units with a total shambles.

By Stephen McDaniel. August 10th, 2007 at 9:56 pm

People who personally assail others in their professional life rather than addressing or debating the issue at hand are immature, misguided, and ultimately self-destructive. I have personally discussed your work with many experts in usability with generally very positive response. There are points of contention here and there, but your overall guidance and direction is true and faithful to the thoughts of most experts (who speak with many end-users of BI software) I know.

That said, there are three aspects to software:
Cool,
Useful,
and Elegant.
I call it CUE. Too many people are dazzled by the cool part, some even get around to the elegant part, but combining the three is difficult but of great value- Tivo and the IPod come to mind (though not BI apps.) XCelsius is fun and cool, but not very useful at conveying information in a clear and informative manner. Your example above from his site does speak for iteslf.

By The Dashboard Spy. August 15th, 2007 at 9:40 am

Gentlemen - back to your corners!

A couple of observations from this avid collector of dashboards:

Dashboards are like children. You always love your own and find others spoiled and insufferable.

Dashboard projects, like all IT projects, are politically-driven and kowtowing to the sponsors is part of the process.

That being said, the true value that a real consultant brings to the table is to get agreement from all parties that dashboarding, business intelligence, data visualization (call it what you want) is a true discipline that calls for respect for certain principles.

The job of the dashboard consultant is not to insist upon the right or wrong of a certain approach, but to educate the sponsor as to why it’s in his best interest to observe these principles.

On the other hand, project considerations of quality, duration and cost, always come into play and the consultant may have to yield to restrictions imposed by the software, business practices or simple bullheadiness.

In terms of personal conduct and the weight of one’s contribution to the community, I believe in karma. Also, we’re running a marathon, not a sprint. Mr. Few’s contributions are measured in years and speak for themselves.

Finally, Clint is right. I wouldn’t take it personally - no matter how painful. While the language is strong, there is, unfortunately, much PR to be had from taking a strong stand against an unfortunate party. The dark side seduces many people, especially those looking to make a splash. I’d ignore it and concentrate on those of us in your fan club.

Finally, this kind of stuff keeps me plenty busy - I’ve now got more dashboard screenshots to chase after and feature on my blog, so thanks. I’m now past 1000 dashboard examples in Volume 1 and am looking for the next 1000 for volume 2. Keep an eye on http://www.enterprise-dashboard.com

Regards The Dashboard Spy

By Douglas. August 17th, 2007 at 9:17 am

First, I want to say I also keep Information Dashboard Design on my desk and frequently reference it.

As a consultant or employee, it is my job to provide the best information possible to meet the needs of the clients. Bullet graphs are a new concept for most executives and it takes time and effort to get them to buy into the concept. I have yet to fail in obtaining acceptance of the graphs.

As for Dennis…Where to begin… The dashboards on his site were quite simplistic with no true analysis. I too enjoy using xcelsius just because it is pretty and I like shiny things; however it is seriously lacking in quantitative analysis. Maybe Dennis just doesn’t want bullet graphs taking off because there is no software that will do all the work for him. I use them frequently in Crystal Reports 11, but it takes some time and effort to get them just right!

By John. August 21st, 2007 at 3:44 pm

I was not aware that any Business Objects products supported Bullet Charts. Douglas mentions using Crystal Reports 11 to create them. Please share some details of the applications/tools you use to create dashboards in accordance with the design principles advocated by Stephen Few. Specifically, any products that support sparklines and bullet charts. Thanks.

By Chris Gerrard. August 22nd, 2007 at 3:43 pm

Strictly from the perspective of adding value to businesses by helping them implement systems and programs of effective analytics…

Given the crude level of Mr. Ross’ work so proudly displayed on his web site it would be relatively straightforward to help the competition to his “Fortune 50 VP of Sales” outcompete them by providing an even moderately high quality analytical system.

While Mr. Ross’ client is watching the endlessly fascinating burbling bar and spinning pie charts the competition could be doing real analysis with real data and arriving at much better business decisions.

By Bill. August 30th, 2007 at 9:40 am

John, if you look up “Bullet Graphs” in the discussion forum, you’ll see some examples that others have done to make bullet graphs.

By Kathy Rowell. June 27th, 2008 at 5:16 am

It is troubling to me that someone who claims to be an expert in the field would advocate “give them what they #&*@ want because they have the money”. I can’t even begin to wrap my brain around the lunacy of that EXCEPT to say that you most certainly do attract what you put out there — so he must attract clients who want to throw their money at him to tell them what they want to hear. Clearly this line of consulting and advising requires no intricate business plan or conviction to ideals just a marginally good imitation of a bobble head doll.

By Glenna Shaw. December 29th, 2009 at 9:51 am

I must say I found Dashboard Spy’s eloquent feedback spot on. I find that persons who spew hatred usually suffer from a lack of self-esteem and can only feel better about themselves by putting others down. I feel great pity for them since their life must really be unhappy. I found this comment to be especially true:

“In terms of personal conduct and the weight of one’s contribution to the community, I believe in karma. Also, we’re running a marathon, not a sprint. Mr. Few’s contributions are measured in years and speak for themselves. ”

I’m a recognized PowerPoint expert and an avid user of Crystal Xcelsius. PowerPoint has been much maligned and I firmly believe it’s not the software you use, but how you wiggle it.

I have three of the Stephen Few books and find them captivating. In my mind, you are my new mentor. Your books perfectly suite my needs as I am a self-professed magpie with a tendency to make things too glitzy. Learning from your books has helped me learn new and simpler ways of displaying information while still maintaining a balance of “oooo, shiny” for my clients.

One of my favorite things was learning about the Gestalt Theory of Perception. Long, long ago in a land far way I was a mental health therapist and we frequently used Gestalt Therapy. I felt like I had come full circle.

I created a series of dashboards using crystal xcelsius when they were first launching the product (long before business objects bought them out) and became a fan (did I mention I like shiny?) I freely admit they aren’t great design, but I’ve had many folks write to me about how they can’t afford “real” project management software and my free tools have been very useful and effective for them.

Dashboard Spy - I’m now a fan and signed up for your newsletter. I already have Charley Kyd’s products and use his concepts to improve my PowerPoint dashboards since the graphing engine for PowerPoint is Excel. In fact, if I remember right I owe Charley something but I’m having more and more senile moments and can’t quite remeber what. And yes, I really did say PowerPoint Dashboards. I think PowerPoint combined with Excel is an excellent dashboard medium. Like I said, it’s how you wiggle it. :-)

So finally, I’d like to thank all you folks who provide such excellent information about visual data design. I love being an old dog learning new tricks and you help make that possible.

By Listing of certified pilots in North Carolina. October 13th, 2010 at 7:34 am

Wow, where to start. To set the stage, I just finished Information Dashboard Design last night. I think this book is exceptional and will keep it close by. After reading this post, I applaud steve’s restraint and being the “bigger” person.

What concerns me is Ross’s mention of doing whatever the client wants, “barney” purple, pie charts, etc. These statements go to show that Ross is only interested in a pay check and being a “yes” person. We, as consultants, owe it to our clients to give them the best possible service utilizing optimal communication methods in dashboard design. Ultimately, it is the client’s decision on how they want a dashboard designed, but we must coach and counsel on the best techniques. I give Stephen a “attaboy” for his innovativeness and contribution to data visualization techniques.

Steve, keep up the great work!