Table vs. Graph

By Vicky Lozovsky

Being part of the Business Intelligence community, our daily responsibilities at Information Builders revolve around presenting data. Whether it is an executive dashboard or monthly employee productivity report for senior management, our goal is to analyze raw data, transform, and combine it in a coherent and meaningful manner.

There are several methods for accomplishing this, but the most common involve using tables and graphs. Tables and graphs play an important role in business communication mainly because they are two primary means to structure and communicate quantitative information.

Any presentation of data that you prepare is only successful to the degree that it communicates to your target audience what is intended. A common mistake is choosing a particular display medium because it’s more entertaining to the reader. For example, some people might be more impressed with a fancy graph rather than multiple rows of text and numbers. What you should keep in mind is it’s all about the data. You have to ask yourself, “Did the message get through? Was the data understood accurately and efficiently?”

Let’s look at the difference between tables and graphs. Tables, with their columns and rows of information, interact primarily with our verbal system. We process information in a sequential fashion, reading down columns or across rows of numbers, comparing this number to that number, one pair at a time. Graphs, however, are perceived by our visual system. They give numbers shape and form. To see patterns and relationships is a natural function of visual perception. A single graph conveys important features of the data more vividly and memorably than columns of data.

We can’t say that Graphs are better than Tables or vice versa, but each is better than the other for a particular communication task. If your message requires the precision of numbers and text labels to identify what they are, you should use a Table. When you want to show the relationship of the data, use a graph. There are no standard rules for when to use which, but there are guidelines we can follow.

Tables work best when the data presentation:

  • Is used to look up or compare individual values
  • Requires precise values
  • Values involve multiple units of measure

As an example, here is a quarterly survey of Manhattan real estate sales:

Manhattan Market Matrix

Current Qtr

%Chg

Prior Qtr

%Chg

Prior Year Qtr

Average Sales Price

$1,439,909

5.1%

$1,369,486

17.6%

$1,224,840

Average Price per Square Foot

$1,180

3.1%

$1,144

18.2%

$998

Median Sales Price

$850,000

-1.7%

$864,397

6.4%

$799,000

Number of Sales

2,518

-28%

3,499

3.2%

           2,441

Days on Market

131

6.9%

123

-12.4%

              149

Listing Discount

2.7%

 

2.0%

 

2.8%

Listing Inventory

    5,133

-1.4%

        5,204

-13.5%

            5,934

Graphs work best when the data presentation:

  • Is used to communicate a message that is contained in the shape of the data
  • Is used to reveal relationship among many values

Here’s an example of quarterly average sales prices in Manhattan:

Keep in mind that Tables and Graphs are not the only means of communication. If you can communicate your message clearly and with the desired impact in a simple sentence, that’s what you should do. Let’s use an example from the Manhattan real estate market: “The median sales price of a Manhattan apartment was $850,000 this quarter, up 6.4% from the prior year quarter median sales price of $799,000.” If your audience is only interested in the change from the previous quarter, this sentence is sufficient.

This article was intended to cover the main principles of what we consider basics in data presentation. Transforming raw data into valuable information can proactively improve business. The goal of Business Intelligence is to empower decision makers, allowing them to make better and faster decisions. Let’s face it, better decisions make better business!