This post is the second in a new series on the Bunker Blog. Research & Marketing Strategies (RMS) is featuring some select charts and graphs that we come across in our daily routines that we believe represent failures in data visualization. As always, we have reconstructed these graphing disasters and generalized the titles and labels to shield the original perpetrators from shame and ourselves from hate mail and lawsuits.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will state upfront that I have a general personal bias against 3D effects in graphs. I believe they tend to call too much attention to the graphic elements to the point of distracting from the data. I think they also give reports cornball, “Gee whiz, look what I can do with PowerPoint!” feel, much like the person who uses 15 different fonts of assorted colors and type sizes in a document just because they can. And being a child of the 70s and 80s, it’s impossible for me to see really obvious 3D graphics without being reminded of the original Superman movie opening credits.
That said, I fully admit that my bias against 3D graphs is largely a matter of personal taste. Many will disagree. But one type of 3D graph that I have issues with, beyond mere aesthetics, is the 3D column graph that finds its way into many research reports and PowerPoint presentations. I was reminded of these issues recently when doing some online research and coming across such a report. There are a couple of problems with this graph format:
- They are often complicated and cannot be processed intuitively in an immediate first glance; and
- The data often gets obscured amid all the multi-dimensional clutter.
The first point speaks for itself, but I want to elaborate on the second. Below is an example of a 3D column graph that displays some fictional survey results from a series of rating questions about various restaurant attributes. This is a slightly exaggerated version of the real graph that inspired this post.
The columns in the front are in the way of the ones in the back. It’s impossible to see some of the results as displayed here. But, if we rotate the axes around, it should fix the problem, right? Well, here’s a rotated view of the same data.
This is better, but we still have some of the taller columns blocking our view, like the guy in front of you at the concert who insists on standing on his seat the entire show. If we rotate it again, we can make the view a little better, but we’ve still got some hidden data. In the graph below, how many survey respondents rated the atmosphere as “good” or “okay”? It’s very hard to tell.
The bottom line? If you like 3D effects and feel the need to use a 3D column graph in a report, just be careful that you’re not hiding important information toward the back of your graph behind a skyscraper column up front. And even if that isn’t an issue, think about how easy the chart will be to interpret for the end-user, who is seeing the data for the first time. Just because a graph looks cool doesn’t mean it’s an effective way to make your data tell a story. In the end, a simple, well-presented two-dimensional graph should be enough to make your findings jump off the page all by themselves.
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