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Speaking in Infographics  

What has always excited me about Infographics was the potential to illustrate a story. Of course, the topic has “jumped the shark” –  but we'll ignore that for right now and focus on how we can use their visual techniques to communicate more effectively.

In this post, I'm going to pick a very straightforward set of data that was recently published and go through several options that help us think about communicating data.

The Data

The visual studio team, recently shared some performance numbers about Visual Studio 11.

The chart I want to focus from that article is this one:


What is this chart fundamentally about? Showing how build time got faster between two milestones: the past (at the time of the //Build/ conference and now –  late March 2012).

What is the nature of the data: There are 2 different dimensions for the data: the kind of application, and the nature of the build. Notice that the different build times are unrelated: full build and one line build and no change build do not add up to a meaningful number.

There are some things I don't like about the chart:

  • It suffers from the needless use of colors.
  • It's not that important –  given the context of the goals of the chart –  to show all the intermediate build times. We really just need to be concerned about the beginning time and the ending time.
  • It's obvious that Excel was used. I like Excel. But I do think that the charting engine –  the tool –  should be less obvious.


Telling the Story Requires Decisions

There are a lots ways of representing data. Given what you are trying to communicate –  the story you are trying to tell –  you need to make decisions: trading off some elements of the data against some elements of the visualization to maximize your point. If you didn't care about crafting a visual for your audience, then you should have just rendered the data as a table go find something else to do.



My first decision is to focus on the begin and end times and simple ignore the intermediate values. What does the data essentially look like then? Like this:


We'll worry about the labels and axis later.

What risk I am I taking here? Simple readers might believe that performance had a linear change between those two times. I've fought against that misinterpretation by using circular line ends –  making is subtly clear that there are only two datapoints.



Again there are essentially two dimensions:

  • The application type: WW, C#, VB
  • The kind of build: full, F5 one line change, F5 no change

As it stands now, the dimensionality of the data doesn't come through so clearly in the chart. My next design will try to make this clear by incorporating physically into the chart.


Now you can more easily compare across a kind of application and a kind of build. The gray boxes are partly a design element and partly to simply help me see the axes and sizes of shapes more clearly.

A problem: The original chart had a Y axis that was common to all the numbers. Maintaining that common axis height gives a a lot of wasted space. Instead of simply scaling the chart vertically, my second decision will be to alter the axes in each row to better fit the data.



OK, now things look a bit easier to deal with.


Making the Point Clear

I still don't have any numbers. The Y axis has no label. I'm surely tempted to add it –  because that would be the typical answer when talking about charts –  but instead my next decision is make sure the reader understands how things have changed. I'm going to make it so obvious, that I am betting the lack of axes will not be important.

Please note: I don't have access to the original data. So the numbers I am showing here are estimates just based on looking at the original chart.


My first option: Show the numbers at the beginning and the end.


My second option. Use something we see when looking at stock prices.



And of course these techniques could be combined.


Visual Cleanup and Options

(I've only kept the numbers on the first trend to simplify my work)

Let's eliminate some of the box and to a little bit of alignment formatting.


It's a very vertical design. Maybe literally organizing the build dimension on the Y axis isn't useful. Below another option:


This option tries to create more visual harmony at the cost of repetition (the application types appear on each trend). Notice that I deliberatly increased the axis height for the trends on the right so that the boxes aligned better. 


Parting Comments





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