Book Review: Now You See It

The focus of Now You See It lies at the intersection of data analysis and visualization. As described by its subtitle, “Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis,” the author’s purpose is to explain how visual charts and graphs can complement the process of data analysis by allowing the analyst to perceive patterns in data. Filled with many illuminating graphics, this book is well-researched, persuasive and just plain fun to read.

The tone is set in the introduction when the author states that “despite . . . the construction of huge data warehouses that we can access at incredible speeds, the business intelligence industry has largely ignored the fact that intelligence resides in human beings, and that information only becomes valuable when it is understood, not just when it’s made available.”

The book is divided into two main sections, followed by a summary of new trends in the field. The first few chapters presents general concepts of visualization and the basic elements that are common to all types of graphs. This addresses basic aspects of perception and how we perceive and respond to different visual elements. One particularly useful chapter covers the basic ways in which analysts can interact with data, such as by sorting, aggregating or applying filters.

With this background in place, the second section of the book delves into specific areas of analysis, including time-series, ranking, deviation, distribution and correlation. For each topic, the reader is shown typical analysis scenarios and treated to an informed discussion as to the most appropriate charting techniques for that purpose. For example, in treating time-series analysis, the author focuses on the value of line charts, but also covers the use of radar charts, box plots and other other miscellaneous charting options. Consideration is given to the use of logarithmic scales, running averages and lagging indicators.

One of the strengths of this book is that it is not specific to any particular piece of software. Graphics are taken from many different software packages, such as Tableau and Excel, but the author doesn’t get bogged down in the specifics of how to create charts. The focus is much more on the big picture of the value of visualization. There is the occasional mention of some of the limitations of visualization, but that type of discussion is kept to a minimum. All in all, as an evangelist for visualization, the author makes an compelling case for our increased awareness and use of visualization techniques in one’s analysis toolkit, and this book is an excellent vehicle for exploring that topic.

Now You See It: Simple Visualization Techniques for Quantitative Analysis
by Stephen Few
Analytics Press, April 2009
329 pages, $45.00

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