What Makes a Chart Boring?

In response to my recent blog post about Tableau 8, largely a critique of packed bubble charts and word clouds, Chad Skelton of The Vancouver Sun wrote a rejoinder. In it he essentially endorsed my critique, but also argued that it is sometimes appropriate to use packed bubbles to present data to the general public, such as in a news publication, because “bar charts are kind of boring.”

Skelton’s assertion suggests that there is a hierarchy of interest among graphs, perhaps based on shapes and colors that are used to encode data. Can we place value-encoding objects such as rectangles (as in bars), lines, individual data points (such as dots), and circles (as in bubbles) on a continuum from boring at the low end of interest to eye-popping at the high end? Back in the 1980’s, William Cleveland and Robert McGill proposed a hierarchy of graphical methods based on empirical research, but theirs was a hierarchy of perceptibility—our ability to perceive the values represented by graphical objects easily and accurately. The utility of their hierarchy was obvious, because our ability to understand the information contained in a graph is directly tied to our ability to clearly and accurately perceive the value-encoding attributes (positions, lengths, areas, angles, slopes, color intensities, etc.). So, back to Skelton’s suggestion, is there a hierarchy of interest among graphical value-encoding methods, and, if so, does it trump perceptibility?

What is the opposite of boring that Skelton advocates? He provides a clue:

A lot of people who create data visualizations—whether reporters, non-profits or governments—are fighting tooth and nail to get people to pay attention to the data they’re presenting in an online world crowded with endless distractions. And when you’re trying to make someone take notice—especially if the subject is census data or transit figures—a little eye candy goes a long way.

Data visualizations aren’t just a way to present data. They’re often also the flashing billboard you need to get people to pay attention to the data in the first place.

Apparently, this quality of visual interest has nothing to do with the information that’s contained in a chart. Instead, in this case interest is a measure of someone’s willingness to look at a chart. The more eye-catching a chart is, the more interesting it is. It is meaningless to catch someone’s eye, however, if you fail to reveal something worth seeing. I have no problem with the fact that packed bubble charts are eye-catching; they trouble me because once they catch your eye they have little to say for themselves. A packed bubble chart is like a child that keeps screaming, “Look at me, look at me,” but just stands there with a silly grin on his face once you do.  Unless you dearly love that child, the experience is just plain annoying.

The argument that a chart must exhibit eye-candy to catch the reader’s attention even when that is accomplished by displaying data in ineffective ways suffers from two fundamental problems:

  1. In a world of noise, screaming louder and louder is not an effective means of cutting through the noise and being heard. Screaming louder just creates more noise.
  2. It assumes that you cannot draw someone’s attention to a data display without using an inferior chart, one that is visually eye-catching but information-impoverished.

Regarding the first error, when people get tired of looking at lots of pretty-colored circles randomly arranged on a screen, what will we be forced to do next—make the bubbles constantly move around and spin? Regarding the second error, a graph that gets attention by displaying data in a manner that ineffectively informs is an unnecessary failure of design. Graphs can be designed to catch the eye and inform without compromise. Doing this, however, requires skill.

To make his case that packed bubble charts such as those introduced in Tableau 8 are useful to reporters such as him, Skelton shared the following example of a packed bubble chart that he published last year in The Vancouver Sun:

This chart addresses a potentially interesting topic to Vancouver’s residents, but it reveals very little. Only a few of the agency names are recognizable and only six of the bubbles include values. Had bars been used, the values wouldn’t need to be included, but there’s no way to decode values from the sizes of these bubbles. The size legend (0 through 10) on the bottom left cannot be used to interpret the values that the bubbles represent because it is one dimensional, based on length, which applies to the diameter of the bubbles, but the values are encoded by their areas, not their diameters. This chart is embarrassingly impoverished. If a reporter expressed information this miserably in words his job would be in jeopardy, but we give graphics a pass, treating them like decoration rather than content.

I wrote to Skelton and offered to demonstrate that a bar graph of this content need not be boring if he would kindly send me the information on which his packed bubbles chart was based. I requested all of the information that was available (apparently this information about public servant salaries resides in a publicly available database) about these agencies, salaries, etc., both current and past. Skelton graciously responded by sending the data, but only what he used to produce his own chart: the list of agencies and number of employees in each who earned the top 100 salaries. This information alone is of limited interest. As a Vancouver resident, I would want to know how this year was different from the past and not just the numbers of people, but also the amounts that they were paid. As Edward Tufte wrote long ago, “If the statistics are boring, then you’ve got the wrong numbers.” A chart of any type that contains this information alone will generate relatively little interest. Perhaps Skelton displayed it as packed bubbles rather than a bar graph to camouflage the fact that the information is rather limp. Dressing up a chart in glitter and spangles to generate interest that doesn’t exist in the information itself treats readers disrespectfully. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and White wrote: “No one can write decently who is distrustful of the reader’s intelligence, or whose attitude is patronizing.” I agree.

A chart that displays a rich set of interesting data will not be boring, even if it is a humble bar graph. To illustrate this fact, I began with the data that Skelton provided, and then added to it the kind of information that a journalist could include to engage the reader’s interest. (Please note that I fabricated much of the data in the display below to illustrate my point.)

This enriched set of information, displayed in a way that is easy to read, lends itself to more than a glance. It invites the reader to examine the story in depth.

Skelton is concerned with a significant challenge that journalists currently face:

For news organizations, this constant tension—between excitement and accuracy—is second nature. The most accurate way to portray a council meeting might be a photo of a bunch of bored looking seniors waiting in line to speak. But most newspapers would run the photo of the one, animated speaker waving their finger and shouting.

When did it become the job of journalism to manufacture interest and excitement that doesn’t exist and isn’t warranted? I know that news organizations are struggling to survive. I share Skelton’s concern that it is getting harder and harder to be heard in a world of increasing noise. Not every message is worth hearing, however, and when the message is worthwhile, cutting through the din in ways that rob the message of clarity and accuracy only adds to the noise.

How can reporters get people to read their stories and examine their graphs? I believe they can only do this in a lasting way by consistently providing content that is interesting, accurate, clear, and useful. If they do this often enough, they will become a trusted source. The New York Times is my primary source of news. I subscribe to this publication to show my support for expert journalism and to do what I can to keep it alive. I browse the articles on my iPad and read a few of them daily. How do I pick the articles that I read? I browse the titles, which clue me into the content. I don’t pick articles because they’re eye-catching. I pick those that are mind-catching.

Take care,

23 Comments on “What Makes a Chart Boring?”


By Matthew. April 1st, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Stephen,

In reading both this post and the thread on Tableau one thing has jumped out at me. You ask “When did it become the job of journalism to manufacture interest and excitement that doesn’t exist and isn’t warranted?” - that’s a variation on the theme that you’ve brought up several times.

I think that’s a point worth debating because arguably it has always been a journalists job to drum up interest and excitement in issues they find worthy. The methods are not always ‘ideal’ - even the New York Times will run headlines like “Bloomberg Drops the Ball!”. Now, what did he drop the ball on ? Was it an actual ball or an important policy issue ? They could be very specific in the headline, tell you the gist of the story in a few words and put that on the front page, but they don’t. They are trying to engage you and draw you in with *just enough* information to pique your interest, but not enough information to satisfy your interest.

I agree with you that there are good and bad ways to visualize data. But I imagine that your chart is going to have a much harder time catching someones eye 10 or 15 feet away. If I see your chart (as value laden as it may be) from across the room I am going to get nothing from it.

But the bubble chart might engage me from 10 feet away. Under a headline like “Who is the big spender on Capitol Hill?” I can see from 10 feet away that someone is spending more than a lot of others. And it looks like a couple of those bubbles represent the majority of the spending. It has a lot of potential to pique my curiosity.

I think that some more allowances for various types of interaction (and media) should be made. Pretty much any time you want to talk about data people want to listen - that is an enviable position. Also remember that you are in the relatively rare position to be able to dictate methods, a lot of people can’t.

I have a boss, and when he says “Hey, make this one a pie chart” there’s only so much push back I can do before I make the chart he’s asking. A lot of these writers have bosses, and while there are issues of journalistic integrity worth going to the mat and fighting tooth and nail with your boss over I am pretty sure that bubble chart isn’t one of them.

By Stephen Few. April 1st, 2013 at 4:10 pm

Matthew,

If the goal is to catch someone’s attention from 10 to 15 feet away, there are better ways of doing this than a packed bubble chart. For instance, a picture of a cute puppy works great. Out of the puppies mouth there could be a thought bubble that says “The big spender on Capitol Hill is [insert name here].” The point I’m trying to make is that charts are supposed to inform. If they don’t inform, and do so well, they aren’t doing their job. If all they do is catch someone’s eye, there are always better ways of accomplishing this that don’t undermine the integrity of the data.

Although your boss’ love of pie charts might pose a challenge for you, forcing you at times to display data poorly or starve, this is not an argument for Tableau’s addition of packed bubble charts to its product (if they added everything that your boss wanted, the product would become a mess), and it isn’t an argument for the abandonment of journalistic standards. People are often attracted to things that don’t support their interests. It is the responsibility of a software vendor and a news editor to give people what’s useful. Just as a journalist should never lie to please people who find the truth uncomfortable, he should never present information in inaccurate and uninformative ways just because people would rather waste their time looking at pretty colors than finding out what’s actually going on in the world.

Those of us who have the privilege of working with information to find and report the truth should not waste this opportunity by feeding people the information equivalent of Lucky Charms, even if they love those marshmallow hearts and stars.

By Stephen Few. April 1st, 2013 at 5:16 pm

A friend just emailed me to say that the fabricated information in my illustration doesn’t add up. I’d be surprised if it did. If the point of my blog post were to report top salaries paid to public servants in British Columbia, I would have used real data, but that wasn’t the point. Although I would always prefer to use real information or fabricated information that at least seems real when examined beyond a superficial level, I also have to manage my time based on priorities. Making information stand up to scrutiny that I’ve fabricated to illustrate a point that has nothing to do with the information itself would rob me of time that’s needed for more important matters.

Also, I have no doubt that my illustration could be improved in many ways, and that you might find it useful to give it a shot, taking the discussion in that direction here in response to the blog post would derail it. Let’s focus on the question, “Is it appropriate to display information in ways that undermine its ability to inform in an attempt to catch someone’s eye?”

By Laurent Bourgault-Roy. April 1st, 2013 at 7:04 pm

I hope your not too disappointed Stephen, but that post actually convinced me that bubble chart had their place (though they should be used wisely). Yes, they are not clear. But I will argue that this deficiency can be a feature.

Since you quoted Strunk and White “The Elements Of Style”, I am gonna quote James N. Frey “How to write a damn good novel” who wrote the following : “Story questions make the reader want to read on to find the answers. They are the appetizers of the feast you are serving up.”

In essence : to initially draw the reader attention, you must not provide an *answer*, you must ask a *question*. And in that case, the unclarity of the bubble chart work very well. No, you don’t know exactly how big the budget is for each department, or how much the other cost, and heck you can’t even read their name. But that is the point! What the bubble chart is saying is “Hey, it seem the health care is very big, want to know more? Read on page 4!”. I would argue that they should even have made the graphic less clear, by removing the scale and using more muted colour for the other departments : they are not here to be evaluated themselves, they are only here to provide a point of comparison. The point here is to create ambiguity in order to pique interest.

Now, of course, once you have drawn the reader in, you must actually answer his question, and that is where your own graphic must be put into play. Now the reader can know precisely everything he want to know about the budget. If The Vancouver Sun didn’t put your more detailed graphic after they used the bubble graphic, then yes, they did a disservice to their readers. But that doesn’t mean that the bubble chart itself should not be used. It mean that it should not be use *alone*.

They are various kind of people that read chart, and depending on the level of engagement, you must use various artifice to draw their attention. You don’t have to convince a CEO to look at the data of the last quarter sales. But a reader that check the paper in the morning is not the same beast. Reading the paper is the relaxing moment before a hard day of work, and thus the information presented must be more narrative driven and more entertaining. That is why flashier but less precise graphics do have their place. The point of a graphic is not always to give every bit of information possible. The reader don’t always care about the precision of the data. Sometime all he want is to be entertained. Likewise, a powerpoint slide that is shown for only 5 seconds don’t have the same requirement as an annual report.

As I learned design myself, I learned various rule about layout, colour, etc. But I also learned the most important of all “The best and worst design tend to break the rules, the difference is that in the best case, the designer knew exactly what he broke and why he broke it”. Yes, I agree, bubble chart should usually not be used. Yes, in Tableau 8, those option should not be put forward too much, and be more hidden so that people don’t misuse them. But its okay to include them, and a great designer should not be denied those tools even if they are very easy to misuse.

“If engineer designed bar, they would be well lit, have comfortable seat, and have a music at a lower volume. That way, people could talk and see each other. The only problem is that nobody would be there. They would all be at the local drunk hole pouring beer on each others”. Be always wary, Stephen, of generalizing too much your knowledge of data visualization to domain that have different problems and requirements.

By Dan Murray. April 2nd, 2013 at 2:44 am

Your example and points, as well as the quotes, and sources illuminate. I’m famililiar with all of them largely through the initial interest in data visualization sparked by you, Tufte, Cleveland, and others. I think many people don’t take data visualization seriously until they see a good example next to a not so good one. I experience this every month while consulting. Telling doesn’t work as well as showing. This post does both very well.

By Michael Sorensen. April 2nd, 2013 at 6:33 am

Laurent,

In your post above, are you aware that author James Frey famous for fabricating a story about his “troubled” life and then selling that fiction as fact (then getting caught and embarrassing Oprah Winfrey in the process)? This is hardly the source you want to rely on if your point is to convince Stephen that you care about presenting the truth and making it useful.

By Annie Elliott. April 2nd, 2013 at 9:07 am

To me, the bubble chart is a graphic, not a chart per se. It imparts no more information than say, a picture of buildings representing the various agencies overlaid with relative-sized circles and the department name in them, and maybe a “40″ (such as for the PHSA, and for the life of me what the 40 means).

It’s a visual hook into the story. Personally, I think that part of the problem is that we are trying to elevate basic graphics into the land of enriched data visualisation, and I believe that endeavour will always fail.

I have simply chosen to make peace with these as part of a “graphics-oriented feature set.”

-Annie Elliott

By Andrew. April 2nd, 2013 at 3:51 pm

@Laurent Bourgault-Roy: “If engineer designed bar, they would be well lit, have comfortable seat, and have a music at a lower volume. That way, people could talk and see each other. The only problem is that nobody would be there. They would all be at the local drunk hole pouring beer on each others”.

Cute, but not a very good analogy. For starters, such a bar would be full of engineers. Also, it describes peripheral attributes, all of which are subjective. The point of a bar is to serve alcohol, just like the point of a chart is to inform. A bar that is not a bar fails at being a bar. Likewise for charts.

So a better analogy might be a bar that offers, instead of alcohol, a sharpened stick in the eye, which is likely to ruin your evening whether or not the bar keeps the lights off and blasts music at desirably-many decibels. If I owned such a bar I would name it “The Packed Bubble”. On Tuesdays, I’d offer $1-off sticks for people who use eye-catching charts that compromise the audience’s understanding of the data. Limit 2 per customer; I do want my business to be profitable.

As for Stephen generalizing his knowledge of data visualization to domains that have different problems and requirements: why shouldn’t he? What are these domains and what exempts them from basic principles of visual perception?

By Stephen Few. April 2nd, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Laurent,

I found your comments entertaining. Were you purposely being obscure to create an interest in readers for greater clarity? If so, I’ll do my best to provide it.

Despite the fact that you quoted James Frey, a notorious fabricator of truth, I agree that questions can be used to invite people to find answers. This is not the same, however, as saying that one should be unclear and inaccurate to create a demand for clarity and accuracy when it can be provided immediately. One asks questions to get people to think about issues on their own before providing answers, because thinking on their own will help them better understand the answers once they’re provided. Speaking incomprehensively does not generate the kind of thinking that is helpful; it only creates confusion.

If you want to begin with only a little information to whet the reader’s appetite for more information, then give a little information, but do so clearly. The limited information that was generated by the packed bubble chart was a fraction of what the chart attempted but failed to communicate. A simple sentence would have provided this information more clearly, accurately, and efficiently and could have generated just as much interest in more information. There are better ways to grab readers’ interest than by wasting their time with poorly designed charts. You don’t need to generate demand for an informative chart by first showing one that is uninformative.

You wrote that a great designer should not be denied tools such as packed bubble charts “even if they are very easy to misuse.” Tableau, however, is not a tool for graphic designers, it is a data analysis tool. A graphic designer should be given a tool with flexibility to create any visual effect that’s required. A data analyst, however, should not have his time wasted by features that will never help him make sense of data.

You also wrote, “Be always wary, Stephen, of generalizing too much your knowledge of data visualization to domain that have different problems and requirements.”

Actually, Laurent, in this case it is you who is generalizing principles to areas outside of your expertise. You are a software engineer, not an expert in data visualization or data analysis. I, in contrast, am applying my specific expertise in data visualization to the specific field of data visualization, not generalizing to other areas in the least. The only bars that I’m designing are those that display data in graphs, not the kind that serve alcohol. I should let you know, however, that when I visit a bar, which I do to drink wine with friends quite often, I go to one that is well lit, with comfortable seats, and quiet music so we can enjoy one another without distraction. Contrary to your belief, many people prefer bars like this over your noisy, raucous “drunk hole” where people pour beers on one another for entertainment. Similarly, people who actually use data to better understand the world prefer charts that present information clearly, accurately, and richly over those that leave us with a hangover the next morning, wishing we’d used our brains instead.

By Greg. April 3rd, 2013 at 12:15 am

Interesting discussion. As a point of clarification, James N. Frey is a respected author and teacher and is not the James Frey that notoriously wrote A Million Little Pieces.

By Ian Devonald. April 3rd, 2013 at 8:10 am

Stephen,

Firstly, I would like to nail my colours to the wall. I’m a big fan of your work and originally starting using Tableau after reading your book “Now you see it”. I’m also a big fan of Tableau and use it daily. I agree that v8 has left me feeling a bit flat - I thought they would concentrate on improving some of the fundamental functionality like statistical functions (which are very poor) and making table calculations usable (my head is still sore from banging it on the table !!). I can’t see myself using packed bubble charts - but I would like to be able to have a ‘built in’ percentile function.

So as a starting point I have learnt from you and agree with the majority of what you say - but as a good student I value thinking for myself and maybe having a respectful difference of opinion.

This thread got me thinking about Titles and Content in journalist articles. As described above, the title peeks the interest and then the content does the explanation.

I think you’ve done a wonderful job of showing how the content would look. But if you were using a chart as Title (’attention grabber’, ‘mind catching’) what would you use?

I took your puppy example to be ‘tonge in cheek’ but perhaps there is no place for charts in this context (i.e. information poor but made you look twice. As per textual example above “Bloomberg drops the ball.”)

Personally, I could see a value in the packed bubble charts / word clouds for this purpose (although I’m sure the novelty would wear off and the space they consume is difficult to justify) but if their raison d’etre is the reader to click through to the content then they have served their purpose.

I would be interested to read if you think there is a role for ‘Title Charts’ as opposed to ‘Content Charts’.

ps. On a lighter side : Anyone want to run a sweepstake on what version of Tableau will incorporate speed gauges ;) hopefully with a nice revving sound.

By Stephen Few. April 3rd, 2013 at 9:43 am

My sincere apologies to James N. Frey for mistaking him for the other Frey who is giving his good name a bad reputation. It must be horrible sharing the same name and profession with someone whose work is notoriously suspect.

By Stephen Few. April 3rd, 2013 at 9:48 am

Ian,

My initial reaction to your question about “Title Charts” is that this isn’t an appropriate role for graphs, which are specifically designed to display quantitative content. I believe that words will always provide the best medium for titles, which need to summarize the content at an ultra-high level.

By Ian Devonald. April 4th, 2013 at 2:23 am

Thanks for your response, I’m struggling with the concept that words are better than graphs to pique interest. I have always worked on the basic assumption that a picture tells a thousand words, so perhaps a graph is not the right medium but would text “trump” a graphic/picture to pique interest (I’m not educated enough to know the evidence one way or another) - however it’s led me to wonder about graphs vs. graphics.

Are graphs completely different to graphics (ie. have to obey different rules)? or are they are subset of graphics? and if so where is the line when a graphic (perhaps an illustration) becomes a graph? and vice versa. And is it important as long as it serves it’s purpose? – whether that is to pique interest or to be “interesting, accurate, clear and useful”. Or perhaps the objective of the title is conceived differently “To summarize the content at an ultra-high level” or “to create ambiguity in order to pique interest”.

Personally it’s challenging to question my core assumption; however also enlightening and thought provoking (maybe even “mind-catching”) so thank you for the time you take to respond to my original question.

By Stephen Few. April 4th, 2013 at 6:01 am

Ian,

I didn’t say that words are better than graphs (or graphics) for piquing interest. I said that words are more appropriate for titles.

Think of graphs as graphical displays of quantitative information. Think of charts as all forms of graphical display that convey information (graphs, diagrams, Gantt charts, illustrations, infographics, etc.).

I wouldn’t be a fan of a news publication that used titles solely as a means of generating ambiguity instead of giving me a quick sense of the article’s contents. Regardless, packed bubble charts such as the one that was featured by The Vancouver Sun are not designed to create ambiguity to pique interest. They don’t create ambiguity, they simply say little and say it in a way that is difficult to understand. In other words, a packed bubble chart is like a speaker who can’t speak the language of the audience, resulting in only a few words out of many coming through. Dress the speaker up in a clown outfit and have him do a dance and I might find him entertaining, but not in a way that provides anything useful beyond entertainment. Graphs provide content; they don’t just entertain. Or at least, that’s their purpose.

By Ian Devonald. April 4th, 2013 at 9:35 am

Thanks Stephen, I appreciate you are a busy man and I have gone off on a tangent from the initial blog. It’s an interesting subject.

I’m going to keep an eye out over the next couple of weeks to see if Titles in publications actually summarize the content at an ultra high level. That “Bloomberg drops the ball” quote has really got under my skin. I’m not sure if it is an accurate quote but it is both understandable and nonsense at the same time - and I would have at least read the first paragraph to get an idea of the context (which has now become my reference point to bubble charts and word clouds … understandable nonsense but is there a place for them)

By Larry Keller. April 5th, 2013 at 4:29 pm

I have already consulted a client in/with the use of 8.0. I cannot think of a better oxymoron than the word cloud so it will not be addressed. On bubble charts….I remember being asked for this type of visual over the years but it was an under-whelming market driver. Hardly a marketing analysis I guess.

My client rendered his project managers as a dimension and the number of projects as a measure and voila!…..he saw one or 3 or 4 who, by the size of the bubbles, were over-loaded at least we thought. Can you load more detail with 8.0 to better understand why? Indeed. Could we have done this in a bar chart and seen the same disparity? Did we?

Is a bubble chart a candidate for a dashboard especially if it is “tightly” packed?

Not unlike pie charts and an earlier post, if you have a CMO who is enamored with tiny or larger bubbles………….you know the rest

By Kris Erickson. April 9th, 2013 at 5:46 am

Stephen,

Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. I was recently alerted this this article by Flowing Data: http://blogs.hbr.org/hbr/hbreditors/2013/03/power_of_visualizations_aha_moment.html

The interviewer asks ‘It seems like there’s more focus on trying to get data viz to go viral than to make it “matter.”‘ Tableau may be trying to add in features that might make it ‘go viral’ when shared online and such. In light of their recent IPO filings, it seems maybe they are trying to push the ‘viral’ side of things.

The person being interviewed, Amanda Cox, replies with “There’s a strand of the data viz world that argues that everything could be a bar chart. That’s possibly true but also possibly a world without joy. ” I thought that quote was kind of sad, because I find a ton of joy exploring the data. I use dense bar charts, histograms, scatterplots, and other ’simple’ data visualizations to see the distributions and relationships of the data.

By Stephen Few. April 9th, 2013 at 9:16 am

Kris,

Regarding Amanda Cox’s comment, I am not aware of anyone who argues that “everything could be a bar chart.” Her statement constructs a straw man that is easy to knock down, but doesn’t actually exist. I, and others like me who advocate effective practices, don’t advocate bar graphs as the only solution — not even close — but we do advocate the exclusive use of graphs that present data clearly, accurately, and in a way that the human brain can easily understand.

I taught a class today in effective graph design. I can assure you than no one felt robbed of joy by the principles and practices that I taught. Quite the contrary, they were enlivened. I agree that Amanda’s quote, assuming there isn’t more to it when taken in context, not only misrepresents reality, but appears to be a desperate (and yes, sad) argument for frivolous graphics that are designed to entertain in ways that undermine their ability to inform. What’s odd is the fact that Amanda is one of the few infographic designers who are capable of displaying data in ways that are beautiful without compromising the integrity of the data.

By Neil Barrett. April 24th, 2013 at 4:22 am

Fascinating discussion. I’m an analyst by trade with an interest in communicating complex ideas effectively, but I’ve worked a great deal with graphic designers over the years who value ’significance’ over ‘utility’. Their words for, broadly, how something makes you feel as opposed to how it enables you to achieve a practical goal.

Same with these bubble charts; pointless and futile as they are grab attention (ooh, that’s pretty; ooh, that’s a big blob). No one interprets them or draws conclusions from them, they just use them to confirm their own beliefs. An excellent example was in the UK a few years ago when the Guardian newspaper published a big bubble chart of all UK government department spend. Completely pointless and utterly incomprehensible, but printed and put up in every public sector office across the land. When pointing out to my fellow management consulting colleagues how rubbish it actually was (ie had no utility), I received much skepticism — they *liked* it (ie it had significance), therefore it just had to be useful. (As an aside, Humanities degrees have so much to answer for…).

Geeks and spods seek useful information to inform wise decisions, just like Sherlock Holmes and Spock. Alas, most people are not like that, despite our desire for them to be more rational and objective. And how can you reason with people to be more reasonable? Sigh…

By Kevin Davenport. April 25th, 2013 at 9:19 am

Another great post from an author that actually responds to comments (even the not so great ones). I think you are right on point with your commentary. I see too often data visualizations or interfaces that are convoluted just for the sake of being flashy and novel. Unfortunately, I’ve failed in educating some peers about skeuomorphs and pie charts.

By Jennifer Stirrup. April 30th, 2013 at 12:40 am

If charts are boring, it’s because you’re not showing the right data. If people need the eye candy, they’re not being given something that will interest them. Perhaps I’m being naive, but I harbour a hope that Data Visualisation can be used for the common good, and show data that tells us about our world and how we can make a difference. If people could ’see’ it, then they might be encouraged to do something about it. It might not bring them joy, but it might spark a thought, or a call to action.

By eagerpies. May 4th, 2013 at 1:51 pm

There is not room in this discussion for all the content of my thoughts on this debate but at the link below you can view what I deem a viable solution to address the engagement of the audience with some simple adjustments to the bar chart Skelton deemed “boring”

http://eagerpies.com/close-the-bars-down/