Why your graph should be as simple as possible (also motion charts)

A few weeks ago I attempted my first motion chart. I suspect that Rosling will go down as the David Bowie of statisticians, his alternative and exciting graphs breathing life into statistics.

But I am not Hans Rosling. And you are not Hans Rosling. There are a few reasons why motion charts are not often a good idea. Firstly, the way they need to be formatted is extremely time consuming. Here is an example:

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 12.53.55

In Google’s motion charts you need at least three columns. The date has to be in the first column, a dimension in the second column and anything can go in the third. One of the third or fourth has to be a number on which the change can be anchored. Click Google Charts wizard widget within the Google Spreadsheet and there you have it.

As Rosling’s graph shows it works really well when you can have two statistical measures because then two changes over time can be shown. Which is key. Because it’s a really overcomplex way of showing something quite simple. In almost every case a line chart would be better.

Simplicity works

In February I made a bubble chart showing the different modes of accidental death for both men and women. See below (won’t work on Chrome, only a javascript enabled browser like Firefox).

Accidental deaths by injury or poisoning registered in 2011 E+W



Paul Bradshaw gave me the following feedback:


Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 13.21.27
Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 13.21.37


Translation: don’t try and make something that hides the meaning. Now when I see visualisations that simply obfuscate the message for the point of flashiness I am simply quite wary.

Motion charts

Zach Gemignani did this excellent write up of when it is appropriate to use a motion chart and I pretty much concur with him.

Although animation looks nice and is impressive when you pull it off, with the wrong data it is simply confusing.

Also, you do not get the pleasure of Hans Rosling explaining what is going on for you while it happens.


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