Should you table that chart?


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Numbers have an important story to tell. They rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice.
―Stephen Few

Data visualizations help us bring our data to life and communicate valuable insights, but in order to best be able to do so, we must make optimal decisions around how we represent these data sets. Not only is it important to define the data-driven questions you’d like to answer, but you should also determine who the audience is and how they can best interpret their data. Will numerical or visual representations be more useful? How would they like to use this data? and what is important to them?

Whereas each chart or table serves a specific function and has the ability to reveal powerful insights, their value can only be realized if we are effectively using them to meet the audience’s need.

Getting to know your audience:

Data helps us to paint a picture and tell a story, however, the form it is delivered in can make or break the overall message you’d like to convey. For example, imagine you wish to stress the consequence of poor hygiene on children’s’ health. If you’d like to communicate this to young children, you’d most likely opt for a children’s book with vivid illustrations about the importance of hand washing. Whereas, if you would like to communicate the same idea to parents, you’d probably present health-related stats with eye-catching graphs and attention-grabbing headlines.

When getting to know your audience, you may find varying levels of analytical understanding and capacity to interpret data when it is presented in certain formats. While some may excel at diving patterns and relationships and prefer the clarity of raw numbers for an exact understanding, others may be satisfied with a more visual representation of such trends and performance.

When to choose a table over a chart:

Tables can come in handy in a number of cases. If, for example, your audience is not very comfortable with data visualizations or has a hard time interpreting them, or they simply need to see exact values, data tables are a good option. Not only are they widely adopted and understood, but they allow users to filter and segment in order to quickly find the values that matter most to them. If larger data sets are required, they can neatly store information in a searchable format, however, as their size grows they may become increasingly difficult to interpret. Likewise, tables are an effective means of displaying qualitative data.

Data tables can even incorporate and overlay visualizations such as bubbles or bars that grab the reader’s attention and guide their eye to high or low values. This helpful trick allows readers to quickly identify important insights.

Just like visualizations, tables can become difficult to interpret when presented in multitudes. To avoid overwhelming your users and distracting them from key insights, avoid saturating your reports by using tables sparingly. Use storytelling annotations and powerful headlines to highlight clear takeaways and aid users in making sense of their data.

When to choose a chart over a table:

Charts have the ability to take large amounts of information and transform them into something that is easy to consume on the fly. Their real strength, however, is to quickly unveil the shape and relationships between different data sets or segments. Therefore, when data consumers need to quickly interpret one data set compared to another, or data over time, but do not necessarily need to know the exact values of each data point this is the best option.

Be sure to meet their needs with the appropriate chart for the best understanding:

According to the diagram, charts fall into four main categories:

  • Comparison: best used to show comparisons between two or more variables/categories
  • Relationship: select these to demonstrate correlations between two or more variables
  • Distribution: choose to highlight the distribution of one or multiple variables over time to highlight trends or outliers
  • Composition: use to demonstrate parts of a whole relationship

Asking yourself what you are really trying to communicate to your audience, and matching it with a chart that facilitates this.

A happy medium:

Then again, why limit users to just one visualization? When reporting to large teams or groups, it is nearly impossible to meet the needs or preferences of every individual. So why not give them the best of both worlds? Include tables with built-in visualization features such as bars or bubbles that allow them to highlight key data points directly within in the table. Furthermore, allow them to access tables alongside visualizations, or to toggle between views, for greater accuracy in their interpretation of the data. In Sweetspot, all charts come equipped with slide-out detail views, geared to match the needs of all audiences.

Regardless of whether users are visually or numerically inclined, the main goal is to deliver data in a format they can use. Therefore, be empathetic, but objective when trying to find the visualization that is right for your audience, and, when possible, give them the best of both worlds.


Would you like to get more practical tips on data visualization? Download our guide!


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Holly McKendry

Sweetspot Marketing Director. Wakeboarder & travel enthusiast. Communication Studies graduate of Texas State University, San Marcos.

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