To 3D, or not to 3D, that is the question…

Visualizing data using a 3D chart, graph, or pie doesn’t make it unique or more eye catching. Actually, it has the potential to confuse people by distracting them from the story you’re trying to tell with your visualization. I’ve had to confront several 3D charts over the past couple weeks…my question is how does seeing the side of a bar help me compare it to the bar next to it? Typically the further down the chart list in Excel you go…the more convoluted things get. Kind of conflicting, I think — it would make more sense that the further you go, the more sexy and complex you get (well, the latter is probably true).

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Instead of falling victim to the temptations of Excel (or whatever software you use), think smarter. Easy for me to say, right? Okay, here’s how I recommend you begin to change that:

  1. Don’t always make decisions based on your gut. Remember how you ended up on that 3D pie chart? Yep, thought so. Instead, consider Gestalt Principles…does your visualization make sense based on these principles?
  2. Stepping away helps! Review several days after and determine what your initial interpretation of the chart is.
  3. Critical feedback. Have someone unfamiliar with the project interpret your chart. Even better, get preliminary feedback from your stakeholder. You’ll be surprised what you learn.

The reality is that sometimes the wrong visualization is chosen, but we can do simple things to reduce how often it happens. Similar to a a good report or presentation, good visualizations require stepping away, getting outside feedback, and using research based methods. 

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But why take my word for it?

3D charts: David Sprague (Dashboard Insight) gives some great reasoning behind avoiding “faux 3D charts,” which I think everyone should take a gander at.

Gestalt Principles: I think Steven Bradly (Smashing Magazine) has a nice writeup on design principles.

Find the right chart: I’ve got ideas (go me), and so do a bunch of other people. Trying Googling “What charts should I use for…,” and I bet you will find some ideas.

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