Jan 202015

 “With great power comes great responsibility”

— Voltaire

— Benjamin Parker (Uncle Ben from Spiderman)


Recently both Ryan Sleeper and Andy Kriebel blogged about donut charts in Tableau.

Figure 1 -- Donut chart courtesy of Andy Kriebel

Figure 1 — Donut chart courtesy of Andy Kriebel

While both of them cautioned about where, when, and how best to use them, I fear many people will ignore the warnings and dig into this sugary, analytically-impoverished chart type and start creating stuff like this.

Figure 2 -- Really bad donut chart.  In fact, it’s just a pie chart with a whole in the middle.

Figure 2 — Really bad donut chart. In fact, it’s just a pie chart with a hole in the middle.


And what fuels my fear?  Ryan and Andy do great work, and they write great blogs.  They rightfully have a lot of influence in the Tableau community.

But with great power — and influence —  comes great responsibility and I suspect that some people will see Ryan and Andy’s work, ignore their recommendations, and apply the following bit of “logic”:

Ryan Sleeper is a Tableau Iron Viz champion and really cool — and he makes donut charts.

Andy Kriebel is a Tableau Zen master and really cool — and he, too, makes donut charts.

I want to make cool vizzes and be really cool; therefore, I should make donut charts.

[Insert face palm here]

Interviewer: So, what do you have against donut charts?  Don’t you think they look cool?

Me: My problem is that donut charts don’t tell you very much.

Interviewer: Yes, but they look cool!

Me [yelling]: You know what else looks look cool?  Pictures from the Hubble telescope.  Vintage electric basses.  Three-dimensional pie charts! Should I festoon my dashboards with these images, just because they look cool?

Interviewer: Fine, explain to me why this chart types doesn’t work, but I’d like to see an alternative that isn’t BOR-ING!

Me:  Okay, allow me to do the following:

  • Explain why donut charts don’t tell you much (or not as much as a bar chart)
  • Present a better alternative
  • Show how to have your cake (not your donut) and eat it, too

Why donut charts don’t tell you much

Consider the chart in Figure 1, above.

I always recommend that people ask the following questions when coming up with a visualization:

  • Do I need different colors?
  • Do I need a legend?
  • Do I need measure labels?

Let’s see what happens when we remove the measure labels:

Figure 3 -- donut chart without measure labels.

Figure 3 — donut chart without measure labels.

The chart does pass some of the “can I figure this out test”.  For example, it’s easy for me to see that West is around one quarter of the way to goal and that East is a little more than half way.  Where the chart fails is with comparison among regions.  For example, can you tell how much closer North is to its goal than West?  This comparison is particularly hard to determine as it’s very difficult to gauge how much longer one arc is than another arc.

A better alternative

I think a bar chart with a goal line is easier to grok.  It tells me more and takes up less screen real estate, too.

Figure 4 -- Bar chart with goal line.

Figure 4 — Bar chart with goal line.

There’s an added advantage in that I can easily see both the progress towards a goal and that the goal is $100,000.

Better yet, suppose the goals were different for each region?  Right now they each have a shared goal of $100,000 but suppose the goal for North is $125,000 and the goal for East is $75,000?  With the donut chart, how will you show the actual goal and the progress towards the goal at the same time?

Why is it easy to compare progress across regions using the bar chart?  I’ve discussed this in length here, but the bottom line is that humans are much better at judging the length of bars than they are judging the area of circles or the lengths of arcs.

But does the chart pass the “no measure labels” test?  Have a look.

Figure 5 -- Bar chart without measure labels.

Figure 5 — Bar chart without measure labels.

While I prefer having labels, it’s pretty easy for me to the following:

  • North is more than twice as long as West
  • East is a little more than half way
  • South is more than a third of the way to goal
  • East is about twice as long as West

In other words,  I can draw conclusions more easily from this chart than the donut chart.

Another Example

Consider the chart below that shows the percentage of confirmed judicial nominees that are women, broken down by president.

Figure 6 – Donut Chart showing Female Judicial Nominees (source: Alliance for Justice)

Figure 6 – Donut Chart showing Female Judicial Nominees (source: Alliance for Justice)

There are some good stories in here but they are buried.  Compare this with a bar chart that contrasts the different presidents and underscores the differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Figure 7 -- Bar Chart showing Female Judicial Nominees (source: Alliance for Justice)

Figure 7 — Bar Chart showing Female Judicial Nominees (source: Alliance for Justice)

I think this is a lot clearer.

But it is, well, boring.

Have your cake and eat it, too

I admit that most of my practice has me building stuff that looks more like it would appear in The Economist than in USA Today, but I do understand that you may need to create something that is eye catching.

And I agree that the donut chart is eye catching, but I hate to sacrifice information for the sake of decoration.

Is there a way to get both?

I think there is.  Let’s work on the first example where we were examining progress towards a goal broken down by region.

Want some sugar?  Try a lollipop chart

Figure 8 -- Lollipop chart

Figure 8 — Lollipop chart

Creating a lollipop chart is easy in Tableau. You create a dual axis chart where both measures are identical but you have a different chart type (in this case a bar chart combined with a circle chart).

Figure 9 – Tableau settings for a lollipop chart

Figure 9 – Tableau settings for a lollipop chart

Try some fun shapes

We can also take the lollipop chart and dress it up with a custom shape, like the one shown below.

Figure 10 -- Combination bar and shape chart

Figure 10 — Combination bar and shape chart

While I prefer the lollipops to the runner, I have no problem with the chart shown above because I don’t have to work hard to see both the distance from the goal and to compare among regions.  That is, I did not fight Tableau’s suggested default chart type but instead took it and dressed it up a bit.


NoDonutEven if you are tasked with having to create visualizations for mass public consumption I urge your to use caution before creating a donut chart. I understand that you may need something that is more visually arresting than a simple bar chart, but take that as a challenge: find a way to make something that looks cool but does not sacrifice one bit of analytical clarity.

And if you do create a donut chart, please look carefully at what Ryan and Andy did (and did not do) in fashioning theirs.

Oct 312013

If I see a visualization that is poorly designed or worse, misleading, I’m going to say something about it. I hope you will do the same.

In March of 2013 Stephen Few published a scathing review of Tableau 8. Few’s thesis was that Tableau had caved to marketing pressure and its new product would encourage users to craft “analytically impoverished” visualizations.

At the time I thought that Few’s screed was unfair (see my blog post), but a recent post from Emily Kund about a company’s internal “Iron Viz” competition made me wonder if perhaps Few was right.

Before I get into what deeply troubles me about the aftermath from the contest I do want to applaud Kund and her colleagues for fostering interest in Tableau and data visualization best practices.  Clearly, I have a fondness for these types of contests and like the excitement they generate about visualization.  I also believe strongly in making interactive visualizations that are fun and inviting.

My problem is that while everybody is rightfully patting Kund on the back for having the contest, nobody in the Tableau data visualization community (and it is an amazing community) has pointed out what is wrong with the dashboard — and there is a lot that is wrong with the dashboard.

Too Much Sugar

Let’s have a look at the winning entry from the Halloween data visualization competition.

DTSS Winning Viz Image

Winning entry

This winning viz epitomizes the type of creation Stephen Few feared that people would construct in his now infamous review as this dashboard sacrifices clarity and accuracy for whimsy. Why have the stacked bubble chart, and why have the pumpkins representing annual spending? Humans are absolutely horrible at comparing areas of circles — why use them here? I also don’t buy the size of the pumpkins at all as the $4.7B pumpkin for 2009 is considerably smaller than the $5.0 billion for 2006.  It looks to me like the author exaggerated the size of the pumpkins.

More importantly, by fighting Tableau’s own default settings the author has hidden the biggest story the data is trying to tell us.

Why Didn’t You Let Tableau Make a Line Chart?

Let’s focus on the pumpkin chart along the left side of the dashboard:

DTSS Winning Viz Image_leftside

Unreliably-sized pumpkin chart

Here we see annual sales by year.  Using the same data, in Tableau if we simply select the two fields and click the Show Me button Tableau will automatically generate the following visualization.


The default chart Tableau creates

Now, tell me you didn’t just think “whoa… what happened in 2009?”

THAT’S the big story.

Have Your Candy and Eat It, Too…

I “get” that the nobody is going to get very excited about the viz Tableau creates by default.  Without something to capture the viewer’s interest he/she may not bother with the viz (see Ben Jones’ excellent posts on this subject.)

So, if we must add some “viz candy” why not start with the line chart and dress it up, like the one below?

Line chart with pumpkins

A “fun” chart. 10 seconds to build the default line chart and five minutes to apply some graphic design.

Are Stacked Bubbles Inherently Bad?

I don’t think the stacked bubbles work in the dashboard.  I have to work too hard to see that “Candy” at $22.37 is slightly larger than “Decorations” at $20.99.  With a bar chart I could see the differences immediately.

That said, there are some good examples where bubbles elicit an emotional response and just fit with the design flow (see this example from Kelly Martin).

I also like having this chart type in my quiver, even if I never use it on a published dashboard.  I welcome anything chart type that will help me better understand the data, even if I never use that chart type in production.

Getting People to Use The Tools Correctly

I still don’t agree with Few — I don’t think Tableau should remove features for fear that people will use them incorrectly.

But I am very concerned that visualizations that are poorly rendered are being presented as examples to emulate.  As a community we need to do our best to prevent this from happening, so if you see something that is poorly designed — or worse, misleading — point out the problem and show the person a better way to get the desired result.

I have tried to do that here.