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we are having problems trying to come up with a graph that would show the current and the estimated value, while maintaining the simplicity of the graph and still making it clear at first sight what is estimated and what is current.

Here are some graph types we tried before(don't mind the changing graphic style, we've settled on the flat, boxy style for now), from newest to oldest.

enter image description here

I kind of like the newest the best, the problem is when estimated becomes bigger than current, it'd have to switch colors and it could be confusing. The second is not bad either, but having them under each other adds to complexity.

What's worth noting is that the hero of the graph should be the estimated part, current got a graph of its own up above and it's here just for the context, so you can see the difference between current and estimated..

Which one do you think is the best, or do you have any other idea, perhaps something completely different(like only showing the difference or something), how to process this?

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I dont understand what you're trying to graph. Are you graphing a time period with incremental amounts over a month period and the line is supposed to represent the levels of increase over X time? Is this graph supposed to be estimated profit and actual profit? –  Matt Oct 16 '13 at 14:00
    
You have revenue, which is made out of profit and costs, what this is graph is trying to show is the current(which changes over time) and estimated profit. eg. estimated profit is 60% of revenue, current profit is 73%, and will be going down, might end up bigger, lower or the same as the estimated value. –  foxx Oct 16 '13 at 14:04
    
Are you stuck with green and grey? –  Scott Oct 16 '13 at 15:30
    
Green is the color of profit.. and both estimated and current are profits, so kind of. But as I said, estimated is the main thing we're trying to show here, so we tried to make the current grey and estimated green, or both green just different shades like in the first graph.. –  foxx Oct 16 '13 at 15:55

4 Answers 4

up vote 1 down vote accepted

There's a name for this sort of thing: they're sometimes known as bullet charts (or bullet graphs).

enter image description here


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An information dashboard specialist (and master self-promoter...) Stephen Few claims to have invented them (really, the core of the idea has been around for ages, he just wrote about good practice and gave it a name). Despite my reservations about his self promotion, his book Information Dashboard Design is worth a look if you design a lot of information reporting tools (just take his bluster and many "Rules" with a pinch of salt...).


As you've figured out, the top chart looks nice but just colours alone is problematic:

  • Like you said, it looks odd and confusing if the estimate and actual figure are the other way around in a series of these: suddenly you've got some charts in a series looking like they play by different rules to the others, causing people to pay more attention to the form and less to the meaning while they try to figure it out.
  • It's also less intuitive: you can't have any clear idea about the meaning of the chart until you look up those two colours on a key. You want people to look at a chart and get the idea of it - then, to look at the labels and key if they want particular details.
  • Finally, it looks like a stacked bar chart - like there's the black, then the green is much smaller and added to the black - when actually, the two measures are independent of each other and the green is greater. It's not a good idea to let some people get the wrong idea about what a chart means then force them to un-learn their first impression and look at it again.

Unfortunately if your goal is communicating information, then when something looks nice but is impractical in some way, you really need to put function before form and go with what works best.

A tick on a bar is intuitive and unambiguous: it can't be mistaken for anything other than some other, secondary measure of the same thing. That's why it's promoted as a standard and a convention for things like this. Conventions don't sound fun, but if they mean people understand the message more easily and simply, they're worth following (and of course there's no reason not to add your own twist or flair).


You don't need all the cruft that comes with a typical bullet chart (like axis labels if they're standing alone). I'd suggest something like a merger of the best features of the top and bottom chart in the list:

  • You want the background to be clearly a background element (presumably, it shows 0%-100%?) - so the pale grey in the top chart is good.
  • You want the estimate to be intuitive and not misleading - so a tick line for the estimate with the value next to it is good, like in the bottom chart. Why not neaten things up and save space by having 'Estimate' one side of the line and the value the other, aligned with each other? Maybe also chunk the line up a little bit so it's a bit more prominent - if it's the second most important thing on the chart, it should look like it is.
  • You want the actual value to be simple and strong and clearly the main event of the chart: so a bold dark line like in the top chart is good. No need for rounding: as well as not fitting the stark flat style so well, it adds ambiguity. Is the value the bar indicates the tip of the rounded edge, or the centre of the rounded edge where it starts to taper? Keep it simple.
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This is what we ended up with.

enter image description here

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Looks good, and makes sense! Particularly like the clear and consistent colour coding. –  user568458 Oct 25 '13 at 14:07

Go with the second one down and have a very clear key. Use a little gray box reading "Current" and a little green box reading "Estimated" on top of the bar chart.

The reader can easily see there are two items being compared, it doesn't matter which one is bigger or which one is on top of the other, and you can keep your colors consistent from one graph to the next.

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I'd agree that the second one is the most clear, but why not place the labels directly onto their respective graphical data? That would have the most immediately obvious effect and look nice and clean. –  DumbNic Oct 17 '13 at 0:54
    
Yeah but what Yisela got right is that the difference is important, because one of these two graphs under each other would be just a copy of the one above(i.stack.imgur.com/6bkRo.png).. –  foxx Oct 17 '13 at 9:51
    
@Dominic As long as you have the room and the text is legible, sure. I did financial charts for 10+ years, and rarely did we have enough room to put the label on the bar. The bars as presented above are fairly thin, and putting text on them might be so small that they would become illegible. –  Lauren Ipsum Oct 17 '13 at 9:55
    
@foxx: I would lean more towards Lauren's solution. The real problem I see with most of your samples is that they indicate an "estimated profit" represented by 2 values (or 3 with the tick mark) and no explanation. Kind of like holding up three fingers while saying "we have 1 option". –  horatio Oct 17 '13 at 16:55

What you mention in your last sentence is, I think, key. You want to show the comparison between estimation and final result, but what you probably need to make visible is actually the difference between those.

If that's the case, then the focus should be on that difference, and not just on the total area covered.

Here, for example, that 'extra' area or unexpected profit is darker (this was done very fast in Balsamiq, so it's just to express the idea):

enter image description here

You can use an absolute scale to compare them too:

enter image description here

And if the value is less than expected, you could do something like:

enter image description here

In this last one I added some extra information that would make the graph more meaningful, like the difference between expected and actual values. Anything that illustrates the difference should be a useful extra.

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1  
..which Is basically what the first graph is, the problem is with that "less than expected really".. What you've shown would still change the style of the graph, which is inconsistent and confusing.. for example dark green area in the first graph shows the difference, while dark green area in the second is just fixed width marker, while white area is showing the difference.. –  foxx Oct 17 '13 at 9:48

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