How to Choose Your Data Graphic

By Lillian Pierson

Follow these three steps to test and determine whether the data graphics you choose to use in your data visualizations can effectively communicate your data’s meaning:

  1. Scope out the questions.

    Ask yourself the questions that your data visualization should answer, then look at your visualization and determine whether the answers to those questions jump right out at you.

  2. Take users and media into account.

    Consider who will consume your data visualization, using which medium. Do your data graphics make sense in that context?

  3. Take a final step back.

    Look over your data visualization to ensure its message is clearly conveyed through the data graphic alone.

Scoping out the questions

Before thinking about what graphics to use, first consider the questions you want to answer for your audience. In a marketing setting, your audience may want to know why their overall conversion rates are low. Or, if you’re designing for business managers, they may want to know why service times are slower in certain customer service areas than in others. Many graphic types can fulfill the same purpose, but whatever you choose, step back and check that your choices clearly answer the exact and intended questions.

Taking users and media into account

Consider where your data visualization will be used. Will an audience of scientists consume it, or will you use it for content marketing to generate Internet traffic? Do you want to use it to prove a point in a board room? Or do you want to support a story in an upcoming newspaper publication? Pick graphic types that are appropriate for the intended consumers and for the medium through which they’ll consume the visualization.

Taking a final step back

Finally, to ensure that you’ve chosen the best graphic form, take a step back from your data visualization and evaluate whether the graphics you’ve used make sense. If viewers have to stretch their minds to make a visual comparison of data trends, you probably need to use a different graphic type. If viewers have to read numbers or annotations to get the gist of what’s happening, it’s not good enough. Test other graphic forms to see whether you can convey the visual message more effectively.

Close your eyes and ask yourself the questions that you seek to answer through your data visualization. Now, open them and look at your visualization. Do the answers jump out at you? If not, try another graphic type.