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Fact or Fiction: 5 Common Downfalls of Data Visualizations

Sanket Shah
Updated Sep 20, 2022

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words, but what if that isn't the full story? Learn the five biggest downfalls of data visualization.

Now more than ever, visuals are used to relay facts and figures in business, politics and socioeconomics. Data visualizations – such as graphs, charts and tables – are commonplace in presentations. When used correctly, they can be used to establish trust, tell a story and illustrate complex ideas. 

However, visuals can also be manipulated to support the narrative the author wants to portray. Misleading and confusing images can skew the data and lead to misinformation guiding important decisions. Deceptive data visualizations lead to residual effects like miscommunication and a loss of trust.

Let’s look at some common data visualization mistakes to avoid, and how you can use effective data visualization in your business. 

FYIFYI: Sharing misinformation can seriously hurt your brand’s reputation and cause you to lose your customers’ trust. Check out this article to learn tips for protecting your company’s reputation.

Common data visualization downfalls

To understand just how easily visualizations can deceive, take a look at the following examples and how they can be corrected.

1. Truncated graphs

One of the most common manipulations used to control the narrative is to omit baselines or begin the y-axis of a graph at an arbitrary number instead of zero. This creates the impression that there is a significant difference between data points when the disparity is actually small.

To illustrate how a truncated graph can misrepresent the information at a cursory glance, consider the two graphs below. Both contain identical data, but the truncated graph appears to show a massive difference from A to E.

bar chart

Source: Sanket Shah

bar graph

Source: Sanket Shah

For a real-life perspective, CNN used a similar graph to show political party support for the controversial court decision surrounding the Terry Schiavo right-to-die case in 2005. Here, it appears as though almost three times as many Democrats supported the decision as Republicans and independents, when in reality, there’s only about a 14 percent difference.

bar graph

Source: Western Reserve Public Media

Setting the baseline to zero would have better represented the data.

political party bar graph

Source: Sanket Shah

Additionally, clearly placed labels help further tell the complete story and decrease the amount of time it takes to process the information.

2. Exaggerated scaling

Line charts, often used to show rates of change over time, are notoriously simple to skew in favor of a chosen narrative. Unlike the bar graphs above, it’s not necessary to begin the baseline at zero to accurately portray the facts. 

However, exaggerating the scale of a line graph can easily minimize or maximize the change shown. A higher y-axis value will cause a graph to reflect less volatility or growth. Conversely, a lower y-axis maximum will result in a steep line seemingly indicating increased volatility or growth.

line chart

Source: Sanket Shah

line graph

Source: Sanket Shah

If you take into account that by nature, a line graph is far more subtle than a bar graph, narrowing in on the y-axis value may help provide a more precise visualization. That way, the message can be readily and more accurately understood in seconds.

Consider this representation of global warming over time. In the first image, the y-axis has been blown out, causing the graph to indicate almost no change over time.

global temperature graph

Source: National Review @NRO Twitter 

However, if you zoom in, minimizing the scale of the y-axis, you’ll see a different, more factual representation.

global temperature graph

Source: Sanket Shah

3. Improper extraction

Extracting only a portion of data to align with a particular narrative, rather than letting the full story speak for itself can drastically alter perception. It’s like telling a white lie with the data.

This data visualization of General Electric Company’s performance on the stock market makes it appear as if they’re on an upward swing.

general electric stock

Source: NYSE

But if you were to pull back and look at the complete picture, that would tell a different story.

General Electric stock

Source: NYSE

Without providing all the information it’s impossible to make an informed decision. But only providing a snippet of information results in misinformation leading to poor decision-making.

4. Going against the norm

It’s common knowledge that when talking about finances, green indicates profits and red denotes losses. Deviating from these long-held conventions can create confusion and possible misinterpretation of the facts when taken at a glance.

Here, the original visualization uses standard colors to illustrate profits and losses by state. With a quick look, you can plainly see there are more wins than losses.

state profit chart

Source: Sanket Shah 

However, simply by switching green for red, it would appear that losses far exceeded profits across the majority of the country.

state profit chart

Source: Sanket Shah 

Likewise, we’re accustomed to viewing numbers that increase vertically in a chart, making the following example intentionally misleading.

Florida gun deaths

Source: FL Dept. of Law Enforcement

Since the purpose of including data visualizations is to quickly convey information, altering norms such as colors or order drastically alters perception as well. To avoid confusion, stick with convention.

5. Too much pie

With pie charts, the sum of each slice must add up to the whole. When the numbers don’t add up, you know there’s an issue – whether it be sloppy mathematics or an intentional misrepresentation. A pie chart should always add up to 100%, so check your math every time. 

Fox News pie chart

Source: Fox News

Furthermore, while 3D pie charts may look appealing, they do little to help convey accurate information and, more often than not, can cause a misinterpretation of the data. 

As Edward Tufte notes in Chartjunk, designers often get caught up in the design element of 3D charts, prioritizing design and technology over the readability of the chart. Returning to the simplicity of a 2D pie chart may be in the best interest of both the reader and the data.

3D pie chart

Source: Sanket Shah

pie graph

Source: Sanket Shah

The following example further illustrates the distortion of angles that often occur in 3D pie charts. 

data pie chart

Source: Visually

Tips for better data visualization

Data visualizations may look easy to create, but a lot of effort goes into creating an effective one. Finding the right balance of elements and avoiding common mistakes are key. Here are four tips you can use to create better data visualizations: 

  • Choose the graph that fits your data: When you’re coming up with a data visualization, there are many different types of graphs you can select. You need to find the one that fits your data and the message you’re trying to share with your audience. For instance, bar graphs are a good option if you’re trying to compare two or three different values within the same category. 
  • Keep it simple: Don’t try to share too much information in your data visualizations. That will distract the viewer from the real message you’re trying to convey. Avoid adding illegible text, additional grid lines or other unnecessary visual elements. 
  • Label everything clearly: Proper labeling will help you convey the message you’re sharing. For instance, you should title your graph and label each of your axes. Make sure the labels are easy to read. 
  • Pay attention to color: Use colors effectively in your data visualizations. Employ the same colors to convey similar types of data or use different shades to convey waning intensities. At the same time, avoid using too many colors in your visualizations, since this can easily become overwhelming. 

How businesses can use data visualization

As businesses continue to collect more and more data, it can be hard to tell what is important and what isn’t. Data visualizations are a great way to cut through the noise and highlight the trends and patterns you want to focus on. 

As a business owner, you can use data visualizations to uncover relationships that aren’t otherwise easily discernible. For instance, you can use data visualizations to create sales forecasts, explain customer trends, or outline bottlenecks within your operations. 

TipTip: Data will be used to guide many of your business decisions, but there are times when you should go with your gut.

Thanks to technology, there is a wealth of data at our disposal. But if we falsely represent that data, we do a disservice to those that would benefit from its information. 

Beware of making misleading visualizations and take care not to complicate the message with overly complex or inaccurate images. Although the numbers do not lie, the visualizations representing them may.

Additional reporting by Jamie Johnson.

Image Credit:

Africa Studio/Shutterstock

Sanket Shah
Sanket Shah is an instructor for the University of Illinois at Chicago Department of Biomedical and Health Information Sciences (BHIS) at the College of Applied Health Sciences. Professor Shah has created a course curriculum focusing on healthcare business intelligence, healthcare data, knowledge management and consumer informatics. Professor Shah brings considerable strategic management and technology innovation experience, and has a wide range of experiences in healthcare information technology on the provider, payer, government and vendor sides of the healthcare business. He has served in positions in management, system design, logical database architecture, product management, consulting and healthcare value measurement for the past 10 years in the healthcare industry.