Data Visualization 101 – Common Charts and When to Use Them

Devin Pickell
Devin Pickell  |  April 24, 2019

Telling stories through the use of visuals and imagery has been around since the beginning of human history.

Images have the power to transcend language barriers. They have the ability to convey complex ideas to the masses, and we know this because we’ve seen it in things such as hieroglyphics and medieval paintings.

And while technology has made communication somewhat “easier,” being able to translate research or business data can be difficult without a visual representation.

This is why the use of data visualization has become so important.

What is data visualization?

Depending on who you ask, data visualization can have a variety of meanings, so here is our general way of defining it.

There are many ways to visualize data. So, let’s go over a few of the most common you’ll see when it comes to business intelligence.

Common examples of data visualization

While there are many varieties of charts and graphs, not all will show the same picture. I’ll break down the common types of data visualizations and when one chart may be a better fit than another.

1. Column and bar charts

Perhaps the most common are column and bar charts.

We see them everywhere. Research reports, market reports, and analyses are just a few of the many places.

column vs bar charts

When to use: Both column and bar charts show the same data, just one is vertical and the other is horizontal. Consider using either when it comes to showing changes over a given time period. For example, sales from Q1-Q4 from 2014-2018. Also, be sure not to overload the chart and keep some white space in between bars and columns.

2. Line charts

Another common visualization is line charts.

When to use: These can also be used to show lengths of time, however, they’re a better fit for showcasing potential trends or projections. A line chart that is filled with color can also help visualize volume. For example, showing the number of units sold from 2017-2018. You’ll see what a line chart looks like later in this guide.

3. Pie charts

The use of pie charts have diminished over recent years, however, they’re still a popular visualization to use.

example of a pie chart data visualization

When to use: If there is one thing pie charts are great at, it’s at showing the many pieces that make up a single “pie.” For example, if a company is trying to visualize the percentage each department makes up of the entire company, they can do so using a pie chart.

Other types of visualizations

Histograms: Similar to column and bar charts, although, a histogram will only show a single variable instead of two.

Combo charts: For more than two variables, a combo chart may be the best option. Both y-axes will have values.

Scatter plots: Great for many data points and highlighting any anomalies or outliers.

Bubble charts: Similar to scatter plots, except has larger bubbles to represent larger quantities of data.

Heat maps: Best used to showcase massive datasets in terms of location. We use an example of heat-mapping in our guide on social media data mining.

Waterfall charts: For showing the effect of both positive and negative values over a given period of time. Could be useful for showing how much revenue was gained and lost over a fiscal year.

Stacked charts: Similar to column and bar charts, but not commonly used. One particular use for stacked charts is showing how the volume of one group relates to another.

Tip: Using data visualization is key, but if you find yourself having to explain the layout of a chart for too long, then you’re probably using the wrong one. Consider the content of the chart and be sure to experiment with other types.

How to get started with data visualization

You now have a firm grasp on what data visualization means, so the next step is to actually start visualizing your business intelligence data.

One of the easiest way to practice data visualization is by getting familiar with spreadsheet software like Google Sheets and Microsoft Excel.

Learning a handful of basic formulas and chart formats, as well as design elements like what makes one chart stand out over another, will come in handy when creating compelling visualizations.

Below is what a simple line chart may look like using a spreadsheet.

creating a line chart on Google Sheets

If you’re new to spreadsheets or need some dusting off, check out some of our step-by-step content below:

More advanced uses of data visualization

For companies with larger sets of data from multiple sources, it may be useful to consider data visualization software.

Instead of having to input data yourself or link multiple spreadsheets, these tools automate the entire data collection and visualization process with many more chart and graphics options.

Most data visualization tools will integrate with other software in your tech stack. For example, you can have your CRM and marketing automating metrics visualized in a single space instead of having to bounce between tools. Overall, it’s just more efficient.

Another advantage of these tools? Real-time updating.

Spreadsheets may be a free option for simple data visualization, but the data is often retrospective and won’t provide a clear picture of what to expect next. If you’re a company that relies on real-time data, having a tool that provides you these insights on both mobile and desktop can be a huge plus.

Finally, it’s important to note that while a few tools have data analytics and drill-down capabilities, this is generally not the purpose of data visualization.

When to use data visualization

The short answer is whenever necessary! Seriously, no one likes to sift through mountains of research and business data to get the information they need – well, most people.

Being able to visualize your data can be compelling for a wide range of audiences and have much more of an impact than relying on text. As a matter of fact, a study by the University of Minnesota examined the human brain’s preference for images.

the human brain processes images 60000 times fasterHumans are visual beings, so it only makes sense to convey important information through the use of visualizations.

Make an impression with data visualization

In today’s high-velocity business environment, it’s all about “how fast can you get me results and in what ways can you show me the success?”

Time is money, and if you’re planning on an hour-long, text-filled presentation to your directors and stakeholders, you might want to reconsider.

Instead, a well-designed presentation with a few visuals displaying key performance indicators (KPIs) will have much more of an impact. Of course, being able to describe the content of these visuals will only help your cause.

Tip: Remember, business intelligence isn’t just about the tools being used, it’s just as much about the processes and knowledge of KPIs and content.

So, the next time you’re asked to present the results of last quarter’s marketing efforts, be sure to explore your data visualization options.

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Devin Pickell
Author

Devin Pickell

Devin is a Content Marketing Specialist at G2 Crowd writing about data, analytics, and digital marketing. Prior to G2, he helped scale early-stage startups out of Chicago's booming tech scene. Outside of work, he enjoys watching his beloved Cubs, playing baseball, and gaming.