How Google and Facebook Failed on a Simple Stacked Bar

I came across these two stacked bar visualizations and felt compelled to speak with you all.  If two major companies communicate with their audiences this way, I'd bet there are many authoring similar works.

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  1. A basic  visualization rule is to use separate colors for distinct items like search channels or geographic regions -- gradients are for figures likes sales, customer counts, etc.
  2. 4 or 5 items is fine for using color (7 is the guideline for max number of colors).
  3. Stacked bars are designed to show trends for the total and individual values.  
  4. I find stacked bars make it difficult to see trends of individual items -- so you have to guess.
  5. With Facebook, at least you can do the heavy mental work of comparing values to know the trend.

Here are a few alternatives that I'd love for you to consider!

If you like stacked bars, here's a cleaner and correct version to use.  

Some of my clients have colors for their regions (or the dimension being used), so that makes it easy for readers to interpret the chart.

It's typical to see the axis included.  I removed it because all the data is right on the chart.

You have to love this option!  The trends for individual values and the total are easy to read.

Since regions are labeled on the row, colors are not needed.

You can also sort the rows by total sales for each region, or any other measure.

It's good to have options in your 'visual vocabulary.'  If you were using bars on the same dashboard, a line chart brings diversity.

I also used two options (in Tableau) to make the trends stand out as much as possible.

1. Set each axis to independent values.
2. Choose not to show zero.

MOBILE viewers: the design looks compressed vs. compared to the desktop

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Leave a Reply 4 comments

Nick Hara - February 12, 2018 Reply

Hey Lee,
Love these. For extra clarity, I was thinking of adding a stacked bar chart at the end showing how much each region accounted for average sales as a percentage.

Doing so gives a good overall sense of how changes in each region affect the whole.

Of course, that’s two vizzes…but then again, what’s the PURPOSE of these bars and what information does the viewer need?

    Lee Feinberg - February 12, 2018 Reply

    Nick, absolutely there are a lot of directions to take this and in the end, it all depends on what message the author desires to communicate.

ulrich seidl - February 12, 2018 Reply

just for understanding purposes: when do we talk about stacked columns?

    Lee Feinberg - February 12, 2018 Reply

    Well that’s like when MS Excel calls the same chart bar graphs when horizontal and column charts when vertical. They are stacked bars in either direction 🙂

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