Common Pitfalls with Data Visualization

Jonathan Lister


November 24, 2015 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

The common pitfalls with data visualization trap more than a few designers and marketers every day. Here’s what to avoid the next time you need to get the client or C-level executive onboard with your newest initiative.

Chart Doesn’t Flow Naturally

Knowing how to read a data chart is all about expectations. People in the United States usually expect to read data visuals from left to right with number growth depicted on an axis rising from the bottom to the top. Creating charts that surge against the grain of these conventions only leads to confusion and frustration from decision makers and executives. The last thing you want is to rile up stakeholders when you’re trying to communicate wins and account progress.

Fixing the Issue is Simple: Follow the rules. Give your clients and managers a clean graphic that delivers information based on normal conventions.

Complex Infographic Creating Confusion

Sometimes, you just get too creative with charting data. You use one million dots floating around an orb with the words “Tracking Synergy Growth 2015” slapped underneath. No one can easily get actionable information from such a complex web. A quality infographic turns data into a narrative, building a story that your audience can follow to draw conclusions and turn them into action items that can help them.

Cut Down the Complexity: Base your design around something simple: A concrete idea that you can build around to create a compelling visual. That strategy should help stop you from straying into abstract art when a no frills bar graph is the right tool.

Over-Simplifying the Presentation

Going overly simple in your data visualization is just as harmful as ranging into the severely complicated. If you leave out crucial points, your clients or decision makers won’t have enough information to make well-informed choices. The last thing your engagement needs is an account manager, or worse, an executive, flying blind.

Start Big: Consider what parts or data sets are essential to your project. Construct your graphics to highlight this information first and build the rest of your visuals around supporting these vital components. This tactic keeps your most important numbers in the spotlight while giving just enough background information to cut down on confusion.

Crowding in the Data

Trying to jam too much data into a single visual? You’ll likely come up with a graphic that lacks focus. Your audience won’t know the proper path to take to discover the story your metrics are trying to tell and they’ll tune out the entire presentation. If you see your audience start to get that glazed-over look in their eyes while trying to decipher your charts, you’ve probably gone too far.

Deliver Quick Answers: You want visuals that deliver fast answers to client questions. Has organic traffic grown since the beginning of the year? The graphic should give that answer in seconds with little effort. Ask questions of your visuals while you’re creating. If you can’t get the answer quickly, you cut information that’s in the way to create a clearer path.

Charts Lack Proper Context

Mark Twain hated statistics because they’re easily manipulated. Don’t further the stereotype by failing to give adequate context along with the numerical narrative you’ve built. Context is the scaffolding that helps frame your information. Without it, your audience won’t know what your numbers mean in the bigger picture.

Keep Your Y-Axis: Cutting off your graphic at the axes can turn numbers that are relatively similar in comparison into massive gaps because you unfairly manipulate the chart’s visual component. Hold your presentation to the unvarnished truth by showing viewers the full story.

Employing Trickery for Exaggeration

Manipulating the size of your visuals to make smaller numbers seem bigger and larger numbers seem smaller won’t help your cause. You could wind up in a situation where managers draw incorrect conclusions from your visuals, which leads to bad directions on projects, and a ton of irate emails hitting your inbox. You don’t want to be responsible for ruined campaigns because you couldn’t handle a hard conversation about declining metrics.

Create an Accurate Scale: Avoid exaggerating your graphic by using images as reflections of the numbers they show. For example, if you point to a 75 percent increase in a stat, your corresponding pie chart should show three-quarters full.

Inconsistent Typography and Colors

Color palette is important to help viewers process your graphics. Opting for a wide array of colors in your presentation can cause the very same “ad soup” phenomenon that makes people tune out online advertising. There’s too much information to process, so they shut down to avoid it. You won’t get many second looks at data visualization that appears more as an overturned crayon box than a document created by a marketing professional.

Create Hierarchy with Colors: Use shades of one to three colors to mold your graphic. This tactic gives you visual cohesion with enough variance to show differences in data points. If you find yourself needing to use multiple colors, you may want to review your report and decide if it’s streamlined enough to build a compelling narrative.

Lacking Authoritative Citations

The Internet is a place where anyone can find their own facts to support whatever claim they’d like to infuse with a measure of legitimacy. This trend makes pulling info from respected, unbiased sources more important than ever. If you don’t cite where your data comes from, how is anyone going to believe that the information you’re giving them is correct? Providing clear annotations and citations for your visuals gives viewers an easy means of fact checking your report, and can cut out a number of conversations about “clean data” before they ever happen.

Employ Trusted Sources: Always deliver data from reputable sources trusted by the industry you’re discussing. List the URLs or offline publications you’re drawing information from clearly at the bottom of your graphic.

The best visual charts and infographics out there are the ones that present information in a way that hits viewers instantly with little room for interpretation. Side step these visualization mistakes and you should have a much easier time during your next client call or in-house presentation.

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Jonathan Lister

CopyPress writer

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