Bar Chart Hack #7: The Lollipop Chart

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The lollipop chart provides a short and sweet ending to the 60-Second Data Tip series, “How to Hack a Bar Chart.”

A lollipop chart is nothing more than thin bars with circles on top. So why go to the trouble? Well, if you have a lot of bar of similar length, you should not go to the trouble. The circles will just make comparing the lengths of the bars more difficult.

But the lollipop chart can be helpful when you have a bunch of bars of varying lengths, and you want to set them apart in a visually interesting way. Also, you can use those circle as labels, as in the example above.

Check out these easy instructions for making lollipop charts in Tableau and Excel.

And, before we leave bar chart hacks altogether, check out this wonderful animated bar chart showing the GDP of various countries over time. Watch China fall and rise! (And thanks to my friend, Harry Gottlieb, for sharing this chart with me.)

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data. 

Icons created by Ben Davis, Dinosoft Labs, and andrewcaliber from Noun Project.

Bar Chart Hack #4: Radial Charts

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Welcome to Episode 3 of “How to Hack a Bar Chart.” This time we consider two bar chart species that recast the regular bar chart in circular form. They may be eye-catching but be careful how you use them.

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Radial Column Chart: (aka Circular Column Graph or Star Graph). As you can see in the example above, the bars on this chart are plotted on a grid of concentric circles, each representing a value on a scale. Usually, the inner circles represent lower values and values increase as you move outward. Sometimes each bar is further divided using color to show subgroups within each category. Because we are better at assessing length along a common scale, this type of chart isn’t ideal if you want viewers to accurately compare the lengths of each bar. However, these charts are great at showing cyclical patterns. Florence Nightingale used this type of chart (which she called a polar area chart) to show a cyclical pattern in the number and causes of death in the Crimean war.

This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 70 years or less.


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Radial Bar Chart (aka Circular Bar Chart) is simply a bar chart in which the bars curve around a circle, like runners on a circular track. As you may recall, races on circular or oval running tracks include staggered starting lines so that runners on the outer (longer) tracks run the same distance as those on the inner (shorter) tracks. But the bars on a radial chart have the same starting line making it difficult to compare lengths. So skip the radial bar chart. Not worth the effort.

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data. 

Bar Chart Hack #3: The Combo Chart

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Welcome to another episode in the 60-Second Data Tip series, “How to Hack a Bar Chart.” As we have discussed, bar charts are user-friendly familiar but like all things familiar, they can be boring and easy-to-ignore. This week we consider—in about 30 seconds— how to combine a bar chart with another type of chart to wake us and engage us.

Consider the two charts below. Both show the same data: fundraising goals vs. actual funds raised. The one on top uses bars for both categories. The bottom one uses bars for the goals and lines for actual amounts.

Which works better? I vote for the bottom one. It makes comparing values between two different categories easier because it uses not only different colors to distinguish them but different “encodings” (bars and lines).  The bottom chart gives us a clear view of when we are exceeding or falling short of our goals in any given month.

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data. 

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Bar Chart Hack #2: The Icon Bar Chart

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Welcome to Episode 2 of “How to Hack a Bar Chart.” This mini-series shows you how to take something that works well and that folks understand and move it in a more creative and engaging direction. This time, you meet a close cousin of the bar chart, but this cousin is more interesting than its relative. It has icons.

This is what you should NOT do with icons: make them into bars. Here’s why: bar charts are powerful (if boring) because we can easily compare their lengths. When icons or images are used in place of bars, such comparisons are more difficult to make. See the first example below showing how many clients live in different types of homes. It’s quite a challenge to determine how many more clients live in suburban homes vs. high rises. That’s because the height of the icons are difficult to assess.

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The second example makes it a little easier. But I’d argue that in both examples 1 and 2, the icons make the viewer’s job (comparing lengths) unnecessarily difficult.

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The third example, introduces bars back into the bar chart and thus requires minimal viewer effort.

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And the fourth further lightens the load by removing the Y-axis and directly labeling the bars and placing the bars closer together.

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See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data. 

Image credits: House by ANTON icon from the Noun Project, company by Angriawan Ditya Zulkarnain from the Noun Project, Farm by Ferran Brown from the Noun Project

Bar Chart Hack #1: The Divergent Stacked Bar Chart

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Last week I promised to arm you with useful bar chart hacks. The idea is to take something that works well and that folks understand but move it in a more creative and interesting direction.

So this week I give to you: The Divergent Stacked Bar Chart.

Okay, so you know what a bar chart is. And you probably know what a stacked bar chart is, even if you don’t call it that. It uses color to show the subgroups that comprise each bar (or larger group) in the chart like this:

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Regular Stacked Bar Chart

Now the cool, or divergent, part. It’s easier to show you than to describe it. So take a look:

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Divergent Stacked Bar Chart

As you can see, the the divergent chart aligns each bar around a common midpoint. So it’s much easier to compare, for example, positive and negative values across categories.

Stephanie Evergreen provides directions on making a divergent stacked bar chart in Excel. And here are instructions on creating such a chart in Tableau. Other data viz softwares can make this chart too.

For a much deeper dive into the data viz world’s debate over when and if to use divergent stacked bar charts, check out this article by Daniel Zvinca.

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data. 


How To Hack A Bar Chart

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Choosing a chart type is like making breakfast for your kids. Bar charts are Cheerios. You know they will eat it and it’s healthy. Now come the buts:

But #1:  Cheerios is boring and you wish they had a wider palate.

But #2: If you give them a quinoa breakfast bowl, it will go uneaten and you might as well have given them Cheerios.

When it comes to data visualization, Maarten Lambrechts says don't settle for Cheerios. He calls the problem “xenographobia” or the fear of weird charts. And he implores us to boost our viewers’ “graphicacy” by feeding them the equivalents of quinoa breakfast bowls in the chart world.

Here’s what I think. We should neither spook our children at breakfast time nor our funders, board members, and staff throughout the day. But we should try to slowly widen their palates. One way to do that is to take something they know and love and hack it a bit. Throw some nuts on the Cheerios. Use color in novel ways to enliven a bar chart.

Over the next several weeks, I will offer up different ways to hack a bar chart. Stay tuned!

See other data tips in this series for more information on how to effectively visualize and make good use of your organization's data.