Archive | January, 2012

No Excuses for Ugly Excel Charts

2/2/2012: Corrected the revised bar chart by setting the horizontal axis minimum to zero. Thanks to Jon Peltier for catch.

Excel remains the de-facto graphing tool at National Priorities Project. A simple chart is often the best way to convey information about federal spending and budgeting, and Excel is the common language among our researchers and IT team.

Using Excel, however, is no excuse for ignoring style and the best practices of information display. So many organizations put out amazing, well-researched publications and then tack on default Excel graphs as an afterthought. But graphs are often what people look at first, and they deserve to be first-class citizens in the editing process.

I created some Excel chart templates for NPP, drawing on two sources for inspiration and practical advice: the classic Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte and The Wall Street Journal Guide to Information Graphics by Dona Wong.

Tufte is big on eliminating “unnecessary ink” that distracts from the information, and Wong advocates requiring the least amount of work on the reader’s part. With their advice in mind, I modified Excel’s default bar chart from this:

Excel bar chart - default

Bar chart: Excel default

To this:

Excel bar chart - modified

Bar chart: new template

  • Smaller gap between bars
  • Don’t make readers guess the numbers; if possible, label the bars directly
  • Direct labeling means you don’t need the noisy gridlines or even the x-axis
  • Remove the y-axis tick marks for even more noise reduction
  • Get rid of those zeros by showing data in millions or billions
  • Make sure the entire length of the bars is shown (in this case, by setting the horizontal axis minimum to zero). HT Jon Peltier.

The pie chart got a similar treatment. The Excel default:

Excel pie chart - default

Pie chart: Excel default

The new template:

Excel pie chart - modified

Pie chart: new template

  • Label the pie slices directly—don’t make people use a legend to decode
  • Avoid the default Office color palette and develop your own (ours is based on colors from our website)
  • A white line between pie slices emphasizes the boundaries

Excel isn’t perfect, but it’s out there in the world, and you can’t ignore it. Luckily, a little extra effort goes a long way.

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Be Accessible to the Dummy Demographic

I’ve always considered writing to be one of my professional strengths, and I’m passionate about making technology accessible to people. So when writing about government data for National Priorities Project, I try to make sure the language is easy to understand and non-wonky (wonk is the political equivalent of  nerd). After all, our mission statement says that NPP “makes complex budget information transparent and accessible.”

So when writing a brief paragraph to introduce a new dataset in the Federal Priorities Database, I thought I nailed it:

Federal tax collections represent the amount of federal taxes paid in a year.  The IRS publishes this information by state, breaking it into ten categories.  Because part of our job is to make government-published data more useful, we condensed these ten categories into three: taxes paid by businesses, taxes paid by individuals, and total taxes collected. We believe that these broad categories better reflect what most people want to know about tax revenue and are less confusing than the original data. In fact, the individual taxes calculation played an integral part in a recent publication, Federal Spending Keeps Iowa, New Hampshire Afloat.

I have a few trusted readers in the office, so I sent the text around for some quick feedback. About five minutes later, one of them appeared at my desk, saying that my language was non-accessible and “made her eyes roll back in her head.” Wow. Hard to hear, but she followed up with some specific suggestions that resulted in a much improved, non-eye-rolling version:

We recently took some data from the IRS and made it even better. We call it Federal Tax Collections, and it shows federal taxes collected in a year. Although the IRS helpfully provides these numbers for each state, they break the amounts into ten categories, not all of which are useful. For example, do any but the wonkiest people need to know how much railroad retirement tax was collected in 2010? To make things easier, we condensed these categories into taxes paid by businesses, taxes paid by individuals, and total taxes paid. We think these broader groupings are less confusing and more practical. Our recent publication, Federal Spending Keeps Iowa, New Hampshire Afloat, shows the individual taxes category in use.

Thank goodness for honest feedback! It seems obvious, but the lessons here are easy to overlook when you’re cranking through a to-do list.

  • No matter what kind of deadline you think you have, it’s always worth the time to get other eyes on something your organization will publish, even if it’s just a small blurb, and even if your colleagues are busy. After all, it’s in everyone’s best interest to show the world your best stuff.
  • Make sure your trusted readers include, as my friend calls herself, the dummy demographic, a term of affection for readers who aren’t experts in your subject matter.
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