Three Mistakes to Avoid on Data Charts
Turning data into stories involves not just words, but pictures as well. In the world of quantitative market research, that usually means charts, graphs, and tables. Moreover, just like poorly written sentences that often complicate rather than clarify data, charts and graphs in market research too often suffer from “chartjunk,” as Edward Tufte calls it. Any superfluous details, design elements, or decorations that do not tell the viewer something new about the data are chartjunk.
At Versta Research we write a lot of reports. We also revise others’ reports to help our clients find and more clearly present research stories to their management teams. Here are three of the more common chart design mistakes we see and help our clients avoid:
1. 3-D Charts. Few of us in market research work in multidimensional spaces, so 3-D charts have no purpose other than to “Bring more creativity to your presentations!” or “Lift your charts above the ordinary!” In fact, 3-D charts nearly always distort proportions and make it more difficult to compare and contrast relevant data. For the most part, we keep our charts in flatland.
2. Grid Lines. For some reason PowerPoint includes gridlines by default. But gridlines are rarely needed, and usually they are distracting. Typically we label all data points, so gridlines that pull your eyes to the axes are superfluous. That said, when gridlines are useful, we make them light gray so that the data stands out and the grid recedes to the background.
3. Irrelevant Data. The best charts pack amazingly large amounts of data, but in elegant ways that never overwhelm with irrelevant information. The problem with research data is that we always have more data we could put into a chart, so the key is to figure out which data helps tell the story. For example, if just 4% of customers express dissatisfaction, there is no reason to show details down to the level of “somewhat dissatisfied” versus “very dissatisfied” versus “extremely dissatisfied.”
Data charts are easy to generate nowadays, perhaps too easy. Too many charts (and dashboards, and “actionable” report generators) are now data dumps that fail to tell a story any more than the raw data that was dumped into them.
To get your research understood, used, and promoted by your management team, it needs to tell a story. That requires a thoughtful, deliberate approach whether by words or by pictures.
—Joe Hopper, Ph.D.