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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Sorry, but your charts are ugly

I once got fired for improving sales 300%.

I showed a client a report. It was awesome and I was dang proud of the results. The report read like this:

Sales from organic search last year were $50,000. Sales from organic search this year were $150,000.

Sales from PPC last year were $60,000, against a spend of $30,000. Sales from PPC this year were $70,000, against a spend of $10,000.

The client read the report, pursed their lips thoughtfully and said "Yeah, but my ROI from pay per click marketing sucked."

I started getting a twitch in my left eye that persists to this day.

"No", I said, "See, last year you spent $30k to get $60k. This year you spent $10k to get $70k. That's better, right?"

"Well, OK, but my ROI can't have improved that much if you only added $10k to my sales."


This is an extreme case, obviously. But since then I've considered the presentation of the data as important as the data itself. That may seem horrible—the content's what's important, right? But it's a harsh reality: When you're presenting internet marketing reports to someone who has about 30 spare seconds, image is everything.

Want to avoid my sorry fate? Here are a few tips I've stolen from others over the years:

3D? Faded colors? Shiny bar graphs? No.

I said no.

Take your finger away from the drop shadow button and step. away. slowly.

Look at this graph:

lousy line graph

It's puuuurrrttttyyyyyy. But can you take it all in and figure out what it's trying to show? No, unless it's trying to show that someone bought the latest version of Numbers.

Now try this version, instead:


Still not perfect, but it's an improvement, right?

So, rule 1: No extra crap.

No 3D effects.No weird color fills.No 'creative' backgrounds.If you're feeling creative, focus that energy to making your data really easy to interpret.

If you've got multiple columns in your spreadsheet, and need to show separate trends for each, use separate charts. Trust me on this one - it always works better. Here's the example from above. I created a second Y axis so the 'conversions' line is easier to read. Yeah, right:


This isn't too bad, but it still makes your reader work. Try this instead—separate the graphs to multiple smaller ones:


A few hints on this method:

Where possible, use the same scale. I can't do that with the 'conversions' graph, at least on the Y axis. But for the 'Clicks' and 'Cost', I set them both to a maximum of 1000. That lets you compare like with like.Remove every non-essential decoration when you're using small charts like these. Even gridlines. Your reader isn't looking for precise numbers. You can have the data table nearby for that.I also removed the round circles that were plotting points. I'm not a big fan of those.

Sometimes it's tempting to do things like change the Y axis to have a higher minimum value. That emphasizes trends:


Please don't, unless there's a really good reason, and you tell the reader.

Sometimes, your client needs to really see the data. Don't be afraid to try creative approaches, like using repeating symbols:


Don't go wild, but sometimes using what Tufte calls 'small multiples' can really go a long way.

Really, all of this is about keeping it simple. A simple line graph. A simple bar chart. No decoration. Just the facts, ma'am.

If you want to learn a ton more about this, try

these books:

Everything I've learned, I've learned from these books.

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