There’s a growing demand for business analytics and data expertise in the workforce. But you don’t need to be a professional analyst to benefit from data-related skills.

Becoming skilled at common data visualization techniques can help you reap the rewards of data-driven decision-making, including increased confidence and potential cost savings. Learning how to effectively visualize data could be the first step toward using data to your advantage and adding value to your organization.

Several data visualization techniques can help you become more effective in your role. Here are nine essential data visualization techniques all professionals should know, as well as tips to help you effectively present your data.

What Is Data Visualization?

Data visualization is the process of creating graphical representations of information. This process helps the presenter communicate data in a way that’s easy for the viewer to interpret and draw conclusions.

There are many different techniques and tools you can leverage to visualize data, so you want to know which ones to use and when. Below are some of the most important data visualization techniques all professionals should know.

Data Visualization Techniques

1. Pie Chart


Pie Chart Example

Pie charts are one of the most common and basic data visualization techniques, used across a wide range of applications. Pie charts are ideal for illustrating proportions, or part-to-whole comparisons.

Because pie charts are relatively simple and easy to read, they’re best suited for audiences who might be unfamiliar with the information or are only interested in the key takeaways. For viewers who require a more thorough explanation of the data, pie charts fall short in their ability to display complex information.

2. Bar Chart


Bar Chart Example

The classic bar chart, or bar graph, is another common and easy-to-use method of data visualization. In this type of visualization, one axis of the chart shows the categories being compared, and the other, a measured value. The length of the bar indicates how each group measures according to the value.

One drawback is that labeling and clarity can become problematic when there are too many categories included. Like pie charts, they can also be too simple for more complex data sets.

3. Histogram


Histogram Example

Unlike bar charts, histograms illustrate the distribution of data over a continuous interval or defined period. These visualizations are helpful in identifying where values are concentrated, as well as where there are gaps or unusual values.

Histograms are especially useful for showing the frequency of a particular occurrence. For instance, if you’d like to show how many clicks your website received each day over the last week, you can use a histogram. From this visualization, you can quickly determine which days your website saw the greatest and fewest number of clicks.

4. Gantt Chart


Gantt Chart Example

Gantt charts are particularly common in project management, as they’re useful in illustrating a project timeline or progression of tasks. In this type of chart, tasks to be performed are listed on the vertical axis and time intervals on the horizontal axis. Horizontal bars in the body of the chart represent the duration of each activity.

Utilizing Gantt charts to display timelines can be incredibly helpful, and enable team members to keep track of every aspect of a project. Even if you’re not a project management professional, familiarizing yourself with Gantt charts can help you stay organized.

5. Heat Map


Heat Map Example

A heat map is a type of visualization used to show differences in data through variations in color. These charts use color to communicate values in a way that makes it easy for the viewer to quickly identify trends. Having a clear legend is necessary in order for a user to successfully read and interpret a heatmap.

There are many possible applications of heat maps. For example, if you want to analyze which time of day a retail store makes the most sales, you can use a heat map that shows the day of the week on the vertical axis and time of day on the horizontal axis. Then, by shading in the matrix with colors that correspond to the number of sales at each time of day, you can identify trends in the data that allow you to determine the exact times your store experiences the most sales.

6. A Box and Whisker Plot


Box and Whisker Plot Example

A box and whisker plot, or box plot, provides a visual summary of data through its quartiles. First, a box is drawn from the first quartile to the third of the data set. A line within the box represents the median. “Whiskers,” or lines, are then drawn extending from the box to the minimum (lower extreme) and maximum (upper extreme). Outliers are represented by individual points that are in-line with the whiskers.

This type of chart is helpful in quickly identifying whether or not the data is symmetrical or skewed, as well as providing a visual summary of the data set that can be easily interpreted.

7. Waterfall Chart


Waterfall Chart Example

A waterfall chart is a visual representation that illustrates how a value changes as it’s influenced by different factors, such as time. The main goal of this chart is to show the viewer how a value has grown or declined over a defined period. For example, waterfall charts are popular for showing spending or earnings over time.

8. Area Chart


Area Chart Example

An area chart, or area graph, is a variation on a basic line graph in which the area underneath the line is shaded to represent the total value of each data point. When several data series must be compared on the same graph, stacked area charts are used.

This method of data visualization is useful for showing changes in one or more quantities over time, as well as showing how each quantity combines to make up the whole. Stacked area charts are effective in showing part-to-whole comparisons.

9. Scatter Plot


Scatter Plot Example

Another technique commonly used to display data is a scatter plot. A scatter plot displays data for two variables as represented by points plotted against the horizontal and vertical axis. This type of data visualization is useful in illustrating the relationships that exist between variables and can be used to identify trends or correlations in data.

Scatter plots are most effective for fairly large data sets, since it’s often easier to identify trends when there are more data points present. Additionally, the closer the data points are grouped together, the stronger the correlation or trend tends to be.

Other Data Visualization Options

While the examples listed above are some of the most commonly used options, there are many other ways that you could potentially visualize data in order to become a more effective communicator. Some other data visualization options include:

  • Bubble clouds
  • Bullet graphs
  • Cartograms
  • Choropleths
  • Circle views
  • Dendrograms
  • Dot distribution maps
  • Highlight tables
  • Correlation matrices
  • Polar areas
  • Radial trees
  • Ring Charts
  • Streamgraphs
  • Timelines
  • Treemaps
  • Wedge stack graphs
  • Word clouds and network diagrams
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Tips for Creating Effective Data Visualizations

Creating effective data visualizations requires more than just knowing how to choose the best technique for your needs. There are several considerations you should take into account to maximize your effectiveness when it comes to presenting data.

One of the most important steps is to evaluate your audience. For example, if you’re presenting financial data to a team who works in an unrelated department, you’ll want to choose a fairly simple illustration. On the other hand, if you’re presenting financial data to a team of finance experts, it’s likely you can safely include more complex information.

Another helpful tip is to avoid unnecessary distractions. Although visual elements like animation can be a great way to add interest, they can also distract from the key points the illustration is trying to convey and hinder the viewer’s ability to quickly understand the information.

Finally, be mindful of the colors you utilize, as well as your overall design. While it’s important that your graphs or charts are visually appealing, there are more practical reasons you might choose one color palette over another. For instance, using low contrast colors can make it difficult for your audience to discern differences between data points. Using colors that are too bold, however, can make the illustration overwhelming or distracting for the viewer.

Related: How to Learn Business Analytics Without A Business Background

Visuals to Interpret and Share Information

No matter your role or title within an organization, data visualization is a skill that’s important for all professionals. Being able to effectively present complex data through easy-to-understand visual representations is invaluable when it comes to communicating information with members both inside and outside your business.

There’s no shortage in how data visualization can be applied in the real world. Data is playing an increasingly important role in the marketplace today, and data literacy is the first step in understanding how analytics can be used in business.

Do you want to take your career to the next level? Download our free Guide to Advancing Your Career with Essential Business Skills to learn how enhancing your business knowledge can help you make an impact on your organization and be competitive in the job market.

Kelsey Miller

About the Author

Kelsey Miller is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.