Whether you’re compiling a report, putting together a presentation, or simply analyzing data you’ve collected from one or more sources, data visualizations are a powerful tool to help you and your audience pull actionable insights from what can otherwise be overwhelming piles of numbers. Data tells a story, and data visualizations are the storyteller, who helps you find patterns, see connections, and make sense of what the data has to say.

There are two basic kinds of data visualization: explanation, which tells the story the data presents to the audience; and exploration, which helps you find the story the data tells. But there are many subcategories of visualization, including various graphs and charts, scatter plots, word clouds, timelines and more. How can you decide which data visualization is right for your message?

Consider Your Message and Audience

Data represents a powerful appeal to logic that can carry your message to audiences inside and outside your organization. Think about what message you want to send and how you can support that message with data. Are you comparing two or more things? Showing the composition of something? Analyzing trends as they occur over time? Different kinds of data visualizations can be used to show different aspects of your data.

The needs of your audience can also help you decide what kind of data visualizations to use. Research your audience and think about what each member of that audience is looking for in your report. Educate yourself about your audience as much as possible, and try to envision who they are, what they need, what their daily lives are like, and what value they can draw from your visualizations and the storytelling that surrounds them.

Choose a Strategy for Your Visualization

You’ll need to choose data visualizations that work for what you want the data to show, and you’ll also need to choose the right data visualization tools for what you want to show because most data visualization tools are specialized to specific types of visualization. For example, you can make a wide variety of graphs and charts in Microsoft Excel, but other tools might be better for other purposes, like Voyant for analyzing texts. 

Data visualization

It’s critical to know what you want to do with your data when you’re choosing visualizations because you can’t show trends over time using a pie chart. If you want to do that, you’ll need a line or column chart, or maybe an area chart. If you want to compare multiple data points to one another, you can use a radar or spider chart, if it’s only a few things, a bar chart if it’s several things, or even a table if it’s a lot of things. Looking to show how often certain words or phrases appear in a text? Choose a word cloud. Want to illustrate the static composition of a collection or group? A pie chart would be a choice, but remember that all of the slices should add up to 100 percent. If the group in question is a little more dynamic, you might choose a stacked bar chart instead. Here’s when you should use each type of chart:

  • To analyze trends, use a bar chart, line chart, or dual-axis line chart
  • To show a comparison, use a mekko chart, pie charts, line graph, scatter plot, bar or column chart, or bullet chart
  • To show the parts that make up the whole, try an area chart, pie chart, mekko chart, stacked bar chart, or a waterfall chart
  • To illustrate the relationship between two sets of values, use a line graph, a bubble chart, or a scatter plot
  • To draw attention to a normal range of distribution in your data, use a bar chart, scatter plot, line graph, mekko chart, or column chart
  • To reveal how data evolves over time, choose a chart that showcases data from a specific period, such as a bar graph or dynamic line chart

The right data visualizations will showcase your data in a way that helps you reveal your insights about it to your audience. 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when faced with the array of data visualizations and visualization tools available these days. But listen to the story your data wants to tell you, and you’ll soon know exactly how you need to present it.

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