Visualise your data

How can you visualise your data to tell a clearer story?

Data is meaningful only if others can understand it. The human brain processes images faster than text, so using charts or graphs to visualise large amounts of complex data is often easier than asking people to read spreadsheets or reports.

This section explores how to use data visualisation to tell a clearer and more immediate story. 

What are the key steps to effective data visualisation?

Work through the following steps:

1. Consider your focus. What do you want to communicate, and how could a visualisation help?

2. Think about your audience. How might they respond to different types of visualisation? What would they find most accessible and engaging?

3. Prepare your data. Check the values are consistent; for example, making sure all values are percentages rather than a mix of percentages and numbers.

4. Choose your visualisation. What’s the best option for the story you’re trying to tell?

5. Create your visualisation. Remember to use clear titles and to report your sample base – the number of respondents for a question (sometimes called n); for example, 80% of participants who completed the survey (n=250). Report if there are any limitations; for example, explain if your sample is small or biased in any way.

6. Review your visualisation. Challenge yourself to pick holes in it and ask someone else to do the same.

What are the different ways to visualise data?

Consider the best way to visualise your data and get your message across:

Infographics: These usually contain key facts and figures, charts, brief explanations, and simple illustrations. They are easy to share online, which makes them powerful for communicating to external audiences. They are less helpful for understanding how to use the data to improve your programme or service.

Illustrations: Illustrations can also be shared widely. Unlike infographics, illustrations are usually hand-drawn and need some skill. It is important to bear in mind that, if you use cultural references, they may not be accessible to everyone. Choose your audience carefully, as not everyone will find illustrations credible.

Dashboards: A dashboard displays real-time data in an interactive online format. Real-time data can help people within your organisation make decisions about your programme or service, but it’s not so helpful for understanding why something is or isn’t working. Building and updating dashboards can take time and resources, and you need to make sure that having one will help you make better decisions before you invest. Decide what key information you want on your dashboard to avoid confusing users.

Posters: Posters can display key quotations or headline statistics, and can be produced quickly and with limited resources. People should ideally be able to read posters within 30 seconds, so keep them simple and brief. It can be helpful to change them periodically.

Photographs: Photographs can help to illustrate the human stories behind the numbers. Remember to get consent when using photographs featuring participants. Think about how you are representing participants and whether you might be unintentionally contributing to stereotypes or marginalisation.

Charts and diagrams: Charts and diagrams can be used to visualise quantitative data, and can be generated directly from MS Excel spreadsheets, so they automatically update with the data. Here are some examples of different charts and diagrams, and when it might be helpful to use them:

Charts and diagrams guide
What do you want to present? Which chart to use Tips
Key facts and figures Icons, images Keep simple. Use consistent style throughout
Comparison of two or more categories Bar chart, circle chart, pie chart Remove unnecessary gridlines and labels. Avoid 3D. Put things in a logical order. For pie charts, avoid having too many segments.
Binary data (e.g. yes/no responses) Pie chart, bar chart Remove unnecessary gridlines and labels. Avoid 3D. Put things in a logical order.
Change over time Line graph, area graph Remove unnecessary gridlines and labels. Avoid 3D.
Relationship between two variables Scatter graph Remove unnecessary gridlines and labels. Avoid 3D.
Frequency Bar chart Remove unnecessary gridlines and labels. Avoid 3D. Put things in a logical order.
Parts of a whole (percentages) Bar chart, pie chart Remove unnecessary gridlines and labels. Avoid 3D. Put things in a logical order. For pie charts, avoid having too many segments.
Dispersion (how spread out your data set is) Box and whisker plot, bar chart Remove unnecessary gridlines and labels. Avoid 3D. Put things in a logical order.

Need help getting started?

The data diagnostic asks 10 multiple choice questions about what your programme or service is, how it works, and who it targets. It then provides a tailored report recommending what kind of data you should consider collecting and how.

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