Why can't bloggers-about-blogging do basic charts?

I follow some of the top blogs-about-blogging and they often come up with advices that I can relate to when thinking of information visualization: simplicity, consistency, go to the point, remove clutter, tell a story…

Problem is, bloggers about blogging fail to follow their own advice when they attempt to graphically display the results of their online surveys or other quantitative data. This is something that I’ve been planning to write about because it is recurrent, but last week both Darren Rose and Chris Garret decided to offer me very good examples…

Anatomy of a bad chart

I’m afraid to say that in Darren’s chart almost everything is wrong:

  • No scale: A chart is about trends and patterns, but you must give the reader at least some quantitative reference;
  • Unnecessary multiple colors: If you are displaying a single series, it doesn’t make sense to vary colors by point;
  • No sort: sorting the data establishes a pattern and helps the reader to immediately see the relative importance of each item;
  • Unmanageable legend: since there are more data points than you can store in your working memory, the chart forces a pendular movement from the legend to the chart and back;

Pies, Arab countries and eight decimal places

Chris likes pies. 2D, 3D, it really doesn’t matter. But sometimes he gets tired of them and uses a bar chart. For very similar data and similar messages, you should use very similar charts, right? It’s called consistency (tip number 8 for a successful blog). But you don’t find consistency in these charts.

From the pie chart “Blogger Ages” and the column chart “Year Started Blogging” I infer that Chris lives in or wants to target some Arab country, since they read from right to left.

Chris infers from the survey results that “most bloggers live in the USA”. I would say that “most bloggers that

[read English blogs and happen to read Chris’] live in the USA”.

And at the end you’ll find that table with eight decimal places.

Blogging, information visualization and information management

This is not about Darren or Chris or some irrelevant charts. They are great bloggers, better than I aspire to be. But why do they fail to meet their own standards when dealing with quantitative data?

Of course they would replay to me “you fail to meet your own standards when blogging”. Yes, I do. We all know the basic laws. We know they apply across several knowledge fields, but many of us only recognize them and make use of them inside our little silos.

But I would really like to see at least some decent charts and good information assessment in these top blogs. We desperately need higher numeric and graphic literacy to handle all this amount of data, and they could help to set better standards.

13 thoughts on “Why can't bloggers-about-blogging do basic charts?

  1. Bloggers probably do no worse than anyone else who hasn’t been trained in data display, or who hasn’t done lots of data display, or who hasn’t thought much about data display. Hmm, a chart button, think I’ll press it.

    I sure wouldn’t have wasted time with the pie chart for years blogging, after the histogram of year started blogging, since the pie is derived from a simplification of the same data.

  2. Jorge,

    Would you be able to create examples of how Darren and Chris’s charts could be improved? I have my ideas about and I’d like to compare that to your expert solutions.

  3. Jon, the difference is they are not exactly “anyone else”. They reach thousands of readers each day and the way they make sense of their data simple doesn’t make sense, and doesn’t help their readers.

  4. Fact is we are just anyone else. Where do you think we might have picked up these chart rules and conventions? We have audiences, that doesn’t translate into knowing everything about everything, or that we would be particularly interested 🙂

    So far I have had two people comment on how I have constructed my charts (yours and a suggestion that I shouldn’t show more than one decimal place), and hundreds interested their content. Seems a good ratio to me ;D

    Tell me how to improve and I will do it, I am always up for learning. There will be more horrible charts today and tomorrow 🙂

  5. Steve, Darren’s chart is pretty simple: just use a bar chart (or better, a dot chart), no color variation, no legend, sorted from top to bottom.

    I have no predefined format for Chris’ dataset. A graphical table is a good option.

    With survey data you must tell a story. Read Brian Clark’s http://www.copyblogger.com to learn how to write good stories and use graphical sentences (charts) instead of written ones. (Easier send than done, but writing some of those stories is one of my projects for the summer.)

  6. Chris, thanks for commenting. Like any blogger, you are interested in good “conversations”, right? It doesn’t matter if you are using words, charts or smoke signs. It’s all about how effectively deliver your message.

    If you want to improve, you can always read my blog ;D

    And you can make your dataset available for us to play. I’m sure you’ll be surprised with the outputs.

  7. A simple table in a spreadsheet should be ok. Don’t aggregate the data, put individual records in rows and variables in columns.

  8. Jorge – I agree with Chris that he’s really just like “anyone else”, except with an audience. The audience by itself does not necessarily require him to learn about graphical display (as well as prosaic display, which is what it took to gain the audience). However, now that he’s learned that there is a set of techniques that can improve the graphical display, he has responded with respect and with a desire to learn to use these techniques.

    Chris – I admire your attitude, which features openness and a desire to improve. I’m interested to see how Jorge presents your data (I would probably use predominantly bar charts…). The data should start as a simple table. Sometimes when I’m showing examples like this, I even “manually digitize” the charts just to have some representative data to plot.

  9. Jon, “openness and a desire to improve” is not always the default attitude, so you are right, we should praise Chris for that.

  10. I reviewed the charts that Jorge was commenting on. Yes, they are bad.

    @Jon P, I thought Jorge’s comments regarding how “they often come up with advices that I can relate to when thinking of information visualization: simplicity, consistency, go to the point, remove clutter, tell a story…

    Problem is, bloggers about blogging fail to follow their own advice when they attempt to graphically display the results of their online surveys or other quantitative data.”

    If this is the case, they could have researched how to properly create charts/graphs. They did not and they failed. They are like everyone else. It is my opinion that when most people create a chart or graph they assume the applications we use to create charts are the correct way to show data visually. We both know they know nothing about charting. Many know that you are a source of knowledge. I, however am not. I am one of those people who have struggled over the years to properly display data visually. I am no expert. Last week I spent 3 days with an expert in Boston, MA. The experts name is Stephen Few.

    For all of you who want to know the proper way to display data I strongly suggest you read his book, “Show Me the Numbers”. It is a hard cover book constructed like a college text book. Its list price is 45 in United States Dollars. His website which has a lot of free content is http://www.perceptualedge.com

    Oh and Jon, Stephen Few mentions that we visit your web site for additional Excel knowledge.

    Thanks again Jorge for making your observations. Now these two fine bloggers can learn and improve and that is what this is all about. We can all learn from each other, regardless of our areas of expertise.

    – @dmgerbino

  11. David –

    I don’t think the bloggers who have posted their survey data have offered any advice about how to plot their data. I don’t think they spent much time thinking about how they should plot it themselves. I think they clicked a button, said, “ooh, pie charts, I’ve heard of them,” and the result is an ineffectual graphic. At least Chris has taken our comments to heart.

    I’ve often recommended Stephen Few’s books. I think they are good resources for learning how and why to use particular visualization approaches.

  12. David, when you say “when most people create a chart or graph they assume the applications we use to create charts are the correct way to show data visually” you are partially right (I believe people should know more than that, but that’s another story). Defaults play a significant role today, and every organization that offers something should be aware of the implications their defaults may have. Those stupid Excel chart defaults are, of course, one of the best examples of how not set defaults.

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