How to better display data and information

Methods of displaying data and information

Tables and graphs (pictorial representations) may simplify and clarify the research data.  Tabular and graphic representations of the data may take a number of forms, ranging from a direct computer printout to elaborate pictographs.  Bar charts, pie charts, curve diagrams, pictograms and other graphic forms create a visual impression.

Designing the Visuals

Numbers tell a story. The trick is to know what story you want to tell and to tell it clearly.

People find numbers persuasive. Numbers provide sound evidence for many decisions   User-friendly tables, graphs, and numbers can shorten meetings, save time, and make a good impression. In the same way that everyone appreciates well-written, concise reports, people also appreciate the clear, succinct use of numeric information.  Poor presentation leads to poor decision-making.

The rules of visualising figures:

Put figures in an order

List numbers in a logical order; most often this will be largest to smallest.  Size order helps the reader make comparisons, revealing patterns and exceptions. Patterns are likely to tell us something important (‘Sales rose consistently’). Exceptions raise important questions (why did sales rise everywhere but Ireland?).

Add focus to figures

You can help readers understand what your numbers mean by listing averages, totals, and percentages, which helps focus attention on the message embodied in the numbers.

Keep comparisons close

Numbers to be compared should be physically close to one another. This proximity helps your readers compare the numbers.

Compare like with like

You can only compare numbers that are similar.

Visualising Numeric Information

There are a number of ways to package numbers to help your audience make sense of the relationships they communicate.  Consider the following techniques:







Tables charts and graphs

Numeric information is best expressed in charts, graphs, and diagrams.  The word chart usually describes some kind of data arrayed in a graphic pattern.  A table is a type of chart that is strictly numeric.  It presents numbers, usually research findings.  A graph depicts relationships and uses symbolism to represent the scaling of the relationships.

Tables list numbers in a systematic fashion. Tables supplement, simplify, explain, and condense written material. Well-designed tables are easily understood: patterns and exceptions stand out; at least once they have been explained.  Good tables are designed for efficient comprehension and easy use. They contain the minimum of numbers to serve their purpose.

Suggestions for the presentation of statistical information in visual form:

1.  Keep it simple.  An overly complicated graph is hard to comprehend and may confuse an issue rather than clarify it.  The less complex the graph, the better.

2.  Keep the scaling consistent.  Once the best possible scale for the graph is identified, set it up so that each segment has equal value.  That’s the only way to accurately report your information.  If scaling is not consistent, the visual summary of the numbers will be inaccurate.

3.  Use the same scale for related graphs.  This helps the reader to understand how one trend is more or less meaningful than another related trend.

4. Avoid Chart junk – Chart junk is decoration that interferes with meaning. Chart junk consists of unnecessary and distracting elements. The most common of these are grid lines, patterned bars and slices, backgrounds, borders, inappropriate and confusing colours, actual numbers and values.

5. Keep Shapes simple – Avoid three-dimensional and odd-shaped graphs, which draw attention to the design rather than the content.  Odd shapes will not help readers understand your message or the data. Even readers who take the time to study the following graph are unlikely to make sense of it.

6. Show Trends and Relationships

7. Attract Attention


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