Data is a powerful tool. It empowers businesses to recognize trends, conduct analyses, make informed decisions, and set realistic goals. And yet, a company can have all of the data it needs to be successful and still fail if no one knows how to understand or leverage it.

Datasets can seem like an alien language to many in an organization outside of the analytics team. This is where data visualization comes into play. Using data visualization, professionals can take raw data and turn it into something easy to interpret.

Below is an overview of what data visualization is and why it’s important, along with a list of some of the top data visualization tools available to business professionals.

What Is Data Visualization?

Data visualization is the process of creating a visual representation of the information within a dataset.

While there are hundreds of ways to visualize data, some of the most common data visualization techniques include:

  • Pie charts
  • Bar charts
  • Histograms
  • Gantt charts
  • Heat maps
  • Box-and-whisker plots
  • Waterfall charts
  • Area charts
  • Scatter plots
  • Infographics
  • Maps

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Why Is Data Visualization Important?

Visually depicting data often makes it easier to understand and draw insights from. As such, data visualization is an effective means of making data more accessible across an organization. This, in turn, can empower employees to back their actions using concrete information instead of relying on assumptions—resulting in more data-driven organizational processes.

Data visualization can also play an important role in communication with parties outside of a business, such as the media, investors, regulatory agents, and other stakeholders.

Data visualization has become so important to modern business that many organizations are now specifically hiring individuals proficient in it, among other data science skills.

What Are Data Visualization Tools?

A data visualization tool is a form of software that’s designed to visualize data. Each tool's capabilities vary but, at their most basic, they allow you to input a dataset and visually manipulate it. Most, but not all, come with built-in templates you can use to generate basic visualizations.

Data Visualization Tools for Business

1. Microsoft Excel (and Power BI)

In the strictest sense, Microsoft Excel is a spreadsheet software, not a data visualization tool. Even so, it has useful data visualization capabilities. Given that Microsoft products are widely used at the enterprise level, you may already have access to it.

According to Microsoft’s documentation, you can use Excel to design at least 20 types of charts using data in spreadsheets. These include common options, such as bar charts, pie charts, and scatter plots, to more advanced ones like radar charts, histograms, and treemaps.

There are limitations to what you can create in Excel. If your organization is looking for a more powerful data visualization tool but wants to stay within the Microsoft ecosystem, Power BI is an excellent alternative. Built specifically as a data analytics and visualization tool, Power BI can import data from various sources and output visualizations in a range of formats.

2. Google Charts

For professionals interested in creating interactive data visualizations destined to live on the internet, Google Charts is a popular free option.

The tool can pull data from various sources—including Salesforce, SQL databases, and Google Sheets—and uses HTML5/SVG technology to generate charts, which makes them incredibly accessible. It offers 18 types of charts, including bar charts, pie charts, histograms, geo charts, and area charts.

Members of the Google community occasionally generate new charts and share them with other users, which are arranged in a gallery on Google's website. These charts tend to be more advanced but may not be HTML5-compliant.

3. Tableau

Tableau is one of the most popular data visualization tools on the market for two main reasons: It’s relatively easy to use and incredibly powerful. The software can integrate with hundreds of sources to import data and output dozens of visualization types—from charts to maps and more. Owned by Salesforce, Tableau boasts millions of users and community members, and it’s widely used at the enterprise level.

Tableau offers several products, including desktop, server, and web-hosted versions of its analytics platform, along with customer relationship management (CRM) software.

A free option, called Tableau Public, is also available. It’s important to note, however, that any visualizations created on the free version are available for anyone to see. This makes it a good option to learn the software's basics, but it’s not ideal for any proprietary or sensitive data.

4. Zoho Analytics

Zoho Analytics is a data visualization tool specifically designed for professionals looking to visualize business intelligence. As such, it’s most commonly used to visualize information related to sales, marketing, profit, revenues, costs, and pipelines with user-friendly dashboards. More than 500,000 businesses and two million users currently leverage the software.

Zoho Analytics has several paid options, depending on your needs. There’s also a free version that allows you to build a limited number of reports, which can be helpful if you’re testing the waters to determine which tool is best for your business.

There are many other tools that work similarly to Zoho Analytics and are tailored to sales and marketing professionals. HubSpot and Databox are two examples, both of which include powerful data visualization capabilities.

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5. Datawrapper

Datawrapper is a tool that, like Google Charts, is used to generate charts, maps, and other graphics for use online. The tool’s original intended audience was reporters working on news stories, but any professional responsible for managing a website can find value in it.

While Datawrapper is easy to use, it’s somewhat limited, especially compared to others on this list. One of the primary limitations is that it doesn’t integrate with data sources. Instead, you must manually copy and paste data into the tool, which can be time-consuming and liable to error if you aren’t careful.

Some common outputs include scatterplots, line charts, stacked bar charts, pie charts, range plots, and a variety of maps and tables. Free and paid options are available, depending on how you intend to use the tool.

6. Infogram

Infogram is another popular option that can be used to generate charts, reports, and maps.

What sets Infogram apart from the other tools on this list is that you can use it to create infographics (where its name comes from), making it especially popular among creative professionals. Additionally, the tool includes a drag-and-drop editor, which can be helpful for beginners.

Visualizations can be saved as image files and GIFs to be embedded in reports and documents, or in HTML to be used online. Like most of the other tools on this list, Infogram has tiered pricing, ranging from a free to enterprise-level version.

Visualizations Are Only as Good as the Data Behind Them

Data visualization is an effective way to communicate with data, and there are several tools you can use to create compelling graphics.

It’s important to note that visualizations are only as good as the data you leverage to create them. When data is incorrect or faulty, it can lead to misleading visualizations or, worse, misleading insights. This, in turn, can have serious business and legal implications.

That’s why you should gain a basic understanding of data science if you’re interested in data visualization. Doing so can enable you to identify bad or faulty data and avoid the negative consequences of poor data visualization. An online analytics course, completed in as little as four weeks, can help develop this knowledge.

Are you interested in improving your data science and analytical skills? Learn more about Data Science for Business and Business Analytics, two of our online analytics courses that can help you use data to generate insights and tackle business decisions.

Tim Stobierski

About the Author

Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.