As a consultant I need to gather and analyze data and transform it into information and findings. This book leads you through the transformation of data - especially if you use Excel or PowerPoint - by showing how to select the best table and chart formats to convey the information aggregated from data.
The thrust of the book is communicating. The author lays a solid foundation early in the book by covering qualtitative relationships, summarization and various data types. He then builds upon the foundation with succinct discussions and advice on selecting tablular formats and the correct charts to convey the information.
While Excel is the principal tool used to illustrate the concepts and techniques in the book, I have applied the author's advice to Visio and PowerPoint, as well as a few more obscure charting and graphics programs.
I like the clarity with which the information is presented, and the practical examples given throughout the book. More importantly, this book isn't a tome that is aimed at graphic designers, making it an ideal resource for technical and business professionals who do not fully grasp the nuances of graphic presentation.
If you present data and information - using any application - I strongly recommend this book because it will make your presentations meaningful and easy-to-understand, and will show you how to avoid a plethora of common mistakes like using the wrong chart or impossible to understand tables.
on September 30, 2004
After reading "Show Me the Numbers," while preparing to post a review of this exceptional book, I felt compelled to respond to the odd and uninformed comments posted by the reviewer who goes by the name Joey Canuck. His primary criticism seems to be that the book is bloated with more words than necessary to present the content. I couldn't disagree more. Perhaps Mr. Canuck disapproves of the author's approach to teaching, which involves a thorough, step-by-step construction of the concepts, complemented by many practical examples, which I believe to be a sound approach when you intend to help people learn. Just like well designed tables and graphs, the design of this book, without frivolous or distracting content, demonstrates a clear focus on communication.
Contrary to Joey Canuck's claim, this book has nothing to do with Excel, other than instructions that appear in an appendix for using Excel to create a particular graph. The principles and practices taught in this book are software agnostic. Regarding consistency with the principles taught by Edward Tufte, I found this book to be quite true to them, and a fitting application and extension of Tufte's principles to the data presentation needs faced every day in the business world. Canuck's complaint that the first grid line does not appear in a graph until page 207 suggests that he is not very familiar with Tufte's teachings, which would deem grid lines in most business graphs as "chartjunk." Actually, the first graph with grid lines appears on page 4, but as an example of the poor design that is common in business today.
A big part of my work involves the creation of reports, consisting largely of tables and graphs. I must often fight for the need to keep the presentation of data simple and clear. "Show Me the Numbers" provides me with the support I need to do this effectively and compellingly.
on April 10, 2009
First a disclaimer: I have not read Edward Tufte's "The Visual Display of Quantitative Information." I have looked through "Envisioning Information" however, and I found this book by Stephen Few to be more helpful to me. While I love the infographics that can be seen in publications like Wired Magazine an the New York Times (and Envisioning Information), I am an analyst, not a designer. My tools are Excel and Powerpoint, not Adobe Illustrator and Flash.
As an analyst I am comfortable with numbers, but I also want others to see what I see, and I want them to be able to see it quickly instead of getting lost in table after table. This is where Show Me The Numbers fits in. It is a book designed to help you communicate with others.
Here's a quick walk through Show Me The Numbers:
Ch 1 - Introduction
Since the advent of spreadsheet software tables and graphs have become increasingly popular and easy to make. Unfortunately those easy to make tables and graphs are not always made to be easy to read and interpret. The purpose of Stephen Few's book is to help you decide when to use tables, when to use graphs, and how to create them in a manner that will most effectively show the message you are trying to present.
Ch 2 - Numbers Worth Knowing
This chapter is fundamental for readers without a basic understanding of statistics, and a refresher for the rest of us. For example, an 'average' refers to a measure of central tendency. But depending on the numbers you may want to use the mean, the median, the even the mode.
In addition to introducing these concepts, the author shows a few ways that this information can be shown in tables and graphs.
Ch 3 - Fundamental Concepts of Tables and Graphs
In this chapter Stephen Few starts to give you some ideas on how to present information, including when to use tables versus when to use graphs and how to properly lay them out depending on whether you are showing quantitative information or qualitative information.
Ch 4 - Fundamental Variations of Tables
After you've figured out to use a table from chapter 3, this chapter will be next on the reading list. Here you will learn more about showing quantitive and categorical data, and options for grouping data.
Ch 5 - Fundamental Variations of Graphs
Just like the tables section, this chapter gives you the basics of various graphs that you can use, including nominal comparisons, time series, ranking, correlation, and a few others. There are a few design characteristics in here, including how to use fill patterns, line styles, and colors to distinguish between various groups of data. Once you see the bad examples you will instantly realize how common bad design is among business users.
At the end of the chapter is a section designed to test your understanding with different scenarios. You get to choose whether you would use a table or a graph, what kind of table or graph, and anything else you might do. At the end of the book is an appendix with the authors suggestions to compare your choices.
Ch 6 - Visual Perception and Quantitative Communication
In this chapter the author breaks away from table and graph design for a briefing on how humans see, interpret, and remember data. Humans have quirks in the way they pull information in, and this chapter will begin to give you some ideas on how you can use that to your advantage (and what things you should try to avoid).
Ch 7 - General Design for Communication
This chapter follows on the knowledge gained in chapter 6 and shows how it can be applied to tables and graphs. The author emphasizes Edward Tufte's principle of the data-ink ratio. If the ink doesn't help to show the data, it should be removed. A few of the other techniques are grouping data, proper sequencing, and adding text to explain what is being shown.
I especially think the point on describing the who, what, when, and where of the data in your presentation is important. This type of metadata is almost always unnoticed by the user, but it adds greatly to the presentation when completed properly.
Ch 8 - Table Design
This chapter continues to build on chapter 4, adding in the principles learned in chapters 6 and 7. If you've ever used dark black fill lines to separate every cell of a table you need to read this chapter. Twice. Please.
The end of the chapter has a few exercises for you to practice what you just learned, and of course there are answers in the back of the book.
Ch 9 - General Graph Design
Just as chapter 8 builds on chapter 4, this chapter builds on chapter 5 while adding in ideas from 6 and 7. The author shows why it's important to carefully consider the scales used in a graph, and how different scales can be used, accidentally or not, to misrepresent the information being considered. He then shows why you should use 2D graphs versus the horrendous 3D graphs that Excel lets you use.
Ch 10 - Component Level Graph Design
Any time you decide to use a graph, you also need to decide what type of graph you want to use. Certain relationships may lend themselves better to scatter plots, while others may work better as a bar chart for instance. This chapter will help you decide which type of chart to use and help you to properly format it for maximum clarity.
Ch 11 - Design Solutions for Multiple Variables
Many of the times you are analyzing data you will be looking at separate groups that must be compared against each other. This chapter will get you started showing complex relationships.
Ch 12 - The Interplay of Standards and Innovation
The final chapter simply tells you to start thinking for yourself about design choices in tables and graphs. Every business is different, and everyone will have their own needs. Pay attention to what works and what doesn't. Be consistent in your design, and everyone can benefit.
This is one of those books where after reading it I felt like saying 'no duh.' But it's information that's so simple that no one bothers to implement it. After reading this book I feel much more conscience of the choices I make in my tables, and I feel like they are already starting to improve. I think this book is well worth picking up and keeping as a handy reference for making tables and graphs.
on March 11, 2005
As other reviewers have already noted, this is indeed an excellent book. Show Me the Numbers covers just about everything you need to know in order to present quantitative information in a clear and persuasive manner. Follow the author's advice and your graphs will tell a useful story, rather than merely list statistics; highlight significant trends, rather than obscure meaningful relationships.
I particularly liked the chapter on how visual perception influences a reader's ability to understand various types of graphic displays. The author clearly illustrates graphic techniques which work WITH our natural tendencies, and thus promote rapid comprehension of the underlying quantitative message. Learning about visual perception helped me more deeply understand and internalize the essence of good graphic design.
In summary, this is a tremendously practical book. The only bad thing about Show Me the Numbers, is that I now cringe nearly every time I see a graph - as I am painfully aware of how poorly designed most of them are. Do yourself a favor, buy a few extra copies of Show Me the Numbers and pass them around at work!
on August 19, 2004
As a person who's created reports, dashboards and analytical products professionally for the last 20 years, I've found information design skills took years to acquire the hard way. I'm a big fan of the literature from people like Edward Tufte, but applying it to everyday work is too abstract for most people.
This book fixes all that, by providing practical, straightforward best practices to handle the situations that come up in the real world. It shows many examples of typical bad designs, why they are bad, and how to fix them, in a way that makes learning the techniques easy.
Besides that, it's a beautifully finished book that can serve as both a text and a reference
on September 30, 2004
This book is the first real effort to address the poor quality of business graphics that have been so easily produced with the proliferation of personal computer software like Excel and Powerpoint. Few's insights are intelligent, well-thought out and practical enough to be understood and implemented by every businessperson.
I've always been a big fan of Edward Tufte, but never felt that his books provided enough practical guidance for analysts and knowledge workers. Show Me the Numbers fills that void and provides readers with a framework for not only designing superior business graphics, but more importantly, communicating effectively with an audience.
Business schools should make this book mandatory for all students.
on January 17, 2008
This book is a gold mine of practical information for the creation of tables and graphs. I really like the Tufte books as well, but have found them to be more general and difficult to apply. Few takes those ideas, adds many of his own and shows the nitty gritty of creating useful charts. I've been looking for a book like this for a long, long time.
on July 12, 2007
Show Me the Numbers provides the practical and useful information needed to creat tables and graphs to effectively tell your quantitative story. Through numerous examples and illustrations, Stephen Few points out the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly ways that quantitative data can be presented. Numbers are important to any business. This book provides the reader with the tools needed to fluently communicate using the language of numbers.