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Magazines > ONLINE > September/October 2012
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Vol. 36 No. 5 — Sep/Oct 2012

Visualization Tools for Turning Information Into Insights
by Marcy Phelps

In a world of Google and do-it-yourself research, it’s become clear that research professionals’ value lies not in the amount or even the quality of the information we find. We need to go beyond that. Today, clients need a reason to turn to a professional for their research needs.

One way to do that is through value-added deliverables that present findings in a way that makes them easy to use and facilitates business decisions. Rather than delivering a compilation of articles or pages of text, we add value by turning the information into insights and helping clients understand what it means to them.


A recent project reminded me that my value as a researcher isn’t in what I find—it’s in how I deliver it. A client asked for county-level data on several industry sectors to help with strategic planning. I spent considerable time managing his expectations about how much local-level information would be available, but I still fretted over delivering the few statistics I was able to gather. Remembering that my client’s goal was to compare business opportunities in different regions, I created several maps that displayed the data by county. By using these graphics, it became clear what industries and in which regions my client should target his sales and marketing efforts.

Displaying research results in a visual format adds impact and brings clarity where words often fail. Graphics add analysis. They help readers understand and remember the information in your deliverables. As Angela Kangiser pointed out in her 2003 ONLINE article, “Not only is an illustration easier to interpret than raw numbers, it can easily be integrated into a client’s final report or presentation.” (“After the Research: Information Professionals’ Secrets for Delivering Results,” ONLINE, v. 27, no. 1, January/February 2003: pp. 26–32).


Value-added deliverables and the use of graphics are not new concepts. What is new, however, is how easy it’s become to display information in visual formats. More and more sources offer options for downloading data in ready-to-use charts, graphs, and maps. From government agencies to premium databases, researchers today have a supply of ready-to-use information graphics.

Ready-made graphics save time, but you may not always find exactly what you need. Perhaps you already have a spreadsheet or other information on hand that you’d like to turn into a visual format. That’s the time to consider creating your own information graphics.

Intimidated by complex “infographics”—page-long, designer-quality compilations of pictures and charts that have become so popular—most researchers simply don’t know where to begin. To help you get started, this article covers a few simple information graphics that will greatly increase the value of your research deliverables—charts and graphs, diagrams, and data maps. None requires a big budget, a steep learning curve, or special skills. Some are free, while others must be purchased. I also include tips for choosing and generating graphics, in many cases using tools that you already have at your disposal.

Charts and Graphs

While some people prefer their statistics in a spreadsheet or table for easy number-crunching and lookups, charts and graphs provide insights into trends, patterns, differences, or similarities. They are best for “telling a story” about the numbers, doing so in a way that requires the least amount of time and effort on the part of the reader.

With a little practice, any spreadsheet can be converted into a chart or graph using Excel’s Chart Wizard. The type of chart you choose will depend on the message you want to communicate. While Excel offers many chart types, start with the basics.

I’ve found the following chart types to be the easiest to learn and the most effective for delivering research results:

  • Pie charts: Generally used for displaying one data series, pie charts show the relative sizes of the components to one another and to the whole. Use pie charts sparingly: They take up more space than other types of charts, make it difficult to compare data sets, and—because they depend on the use of color—color-blind people cannot decipher their meaning.
  • Column charts: Known as vertical bar graphs, column charts illustrate comparisons among items. For example, Figure 1 compares company revenues by region and provides a quick snapshot of the competitive environment.
  • Bar charts: Also known as horizontal bar graphs, bar charts serve the same purpose as column charts but are particularly useful when comparing values in situations when you have too many columns to fit on the page, or if the labels are so long that they don’t fit below the columns. Bar charts also help when ranking items such as employment figures for several industries.
  • Line graphs: Use line graphs for showing trends over time and relationships among data points. For example, Figure 2 with multiple lines summarizes and compares trends for two categories of donors.

Note that when using line graphs, the variable plotted along the x-axis (horizontal axis) is always continuous, such as time, temperature, or distance.

In addition to the Excel Chart Wizard, you can also create simple and effective charts and graphs with these online tools:

  • ChartGizmo ( With a free account, you can generate and customize charts from an Excel spreadsheet or other data source.
  • Google Developers Chart Wizard ( You don’t need to be a developer to create line, bar, pie, and other types of charts with this free tool.
  • DIY Chart ( Upload data in a variety of formats and select from many types charts and graphs. DIY Chart is available in free and premium versions.


While charts and graphs display demographics and other quantitative information, flowcharts, timelines, organizational charts, and other diagrams represent nonnumeric information. Use diagrams to convey concepts such as structure, flow, relationships, processes, cause and effect, and events over time. For example, an organizational chart provides a useful summary of a competitor’s executive structure. Figure 3 also describes the steps in the manufacturing process in an efficient and eye-catching way.

You can easily incorporate diagrams into your deliverables using the SmartArt feature in Microsoft Excel, Word, and PowerPoint. Located under the Insert menu, SmartArt transforms bulleted lists into attractive information graphics. As with charts and graphs, the diagram you select depends on the type of information:

  • List: Nonsequential information or grouped blocks of information. Reserve the use of SmartArt lists only for those times when a bulleted list won’t do.
  • Process: Steps in a process or timeline with a directional flow. Note that the timeline template shows events in chronological order, but it does not display them along a time scale as with some timelines.
  • Cycle: Continual processes such as in a product life cycle or events in a day.
  • Hierarchy: Series of ordered groupings of people or things within a system, including organizational charts or decision trees.
  • Relationship: Connections among opposing, contrasting, proportional, and overlapping concepts, such as how customer segments overlap.
  • Matrix: Relationship of parts to a whole. Use for comparing product groupings or illustrating results of a SWOT analysis.
  • Pyramid: Proportional, foundation-based, or hierarchical relationships and processes, with the largest component on the top or bottom.

Other options for generating your own diagrams for information deliverables include the following:

Data Maps

When you have data that’s broken down by geographic location, consider turning it into a map. Maps are particularly useful for translating tabular information into at-a-glance insights into patterns, clusters, and relationships among places. For example, after running a search in Hoover’s to identify companies that matched my client’s criteria (ownership type, revenue, industry, and location), I created the shaded map shown in Figure 4 to display and compare county business counts.

The same type of information can also be shown using a proportional symbol map (see Figure 5).

In addition to making comparisons, you can use data maps to plot locations on a pushpin map (see Figure 6), which helps identify clusters or other patterns. For example, the map in Figure 6—created from a spreadsheet with location addresses obtained through Hoover’s—marks chiropractic offices in and around Lakewood, Colo., and shows areas that may be underserved by this type of business.

Unlike charts, graphs, and diagrams, you won’t be able to create maps with Microsoft Office. That’s where sources with data in mapped formats come in handy. When you can’t obtain ready-made maps, you have several options for generating your own.

I used Microsoft MapPoint ( for the maps in these examples and the client project described earlier. For less than $300 and just 1 hour of learning, I can now create data maps from Excel spreadsheets in minutes.

MapPoint does have some limitations, including the fact that it currently only offers North American and European versions. Other options for data mapping include the following:

  • Google Fusion Tables ( This free tool helps you create and share maps using public data or your own.
  • Click2Map ( A free online map creator, Click2Map lets you display markers for addresses and add text, images, and polygons.
  • TargetMap ( Use others’ maps or upload your own spreadsheet. Share your maps for free, or keep private for an annual fee.
  • Mapland ( This software works within Excel and includes maps for the United States, Europe, Asia, and other regions.
  • SmartDraw ( In addition to diagramming, use SmartDraw to create professional-looking maps of all types.

 Tips for creating information graphics

Poorly designed information graphics can hide or distort the information you want to deliver. They may confuse or mislead the client. To make sure that your deliverables add value and don’t reflect poorly on you as a research professional, keep these tips in mind when creating your information graphics:

  • Always begin with the end in mind. First decide what information you want to convey, and then determine the best graphics for your purpose.
  • Know your audience. What are their goals? How do they like to receive information, and how will they use it?
  • Make sure your diagrams serve a purpose besides adding color or other decoration to your slides or documents. Use them only to help readers understand and remember complex concepts.
  • Keep it simple, and include only what’s needed to convey the information. Effects such as 3D can distort the data and cause readers to draw incorrect conclusions. Keep grid lines and text in titles and labels to a minimum, and let the graphic tell the story.
  • Invest some time in learning how to use the tools that you already have for creating information graphics. Then decide if you need anything extra.
  • Build templates for all your charts, graphs, and other information graphics. Start with the basics, and maintain a consistent look and feel across all types.
  • Charts, graphs, diagrams, and maps turn information into insights and something that our clients can use. They add a layer of analysis that ultimately adds value to our services and deliverables—and gives our clients a reason to turn to a research professional.
What Data Visualization Tool to Use with Which Scenario
If you’re trying to show … Try a …

Association membership fluctuations over time

Line graph

Sales trends at three store locations

Three-line graph

Administrative costs for several nonprofits, ranked from highest to lowest

Bar chart

How a market is divided among several competitors

Column chart

Budgeted versus actual expenses by department

Clustered column chart

Breakdown of association members

Pie chart

How a nonprofit’s administrative costs compare with other costs

Pie chart

Trends in amount each division contributes to a company’s total revenues

Stacked column chart

Branches of a product line

Table hierarchy diagram

Explain a company’s various product groupings

Grouped list diagram

An organizational chart or a family tree

Organizational hierarchy diagram

A SWOT analysis or a brief company profile

Basic or grid matrix diagram

The overlap in a company’s target markets

Basic Venn diagram

The attractiveness of a certain industry based on five parameters

Basic radial diagram

Major differences in opinion or course of action

Opposing arrows diagram

The number of job openings for all counties in a metro area

Shaded or proportional symbol map


Clusters of disease outbreaks

Pushpin map
Industry hubs, using a list of headquarters locations Pushpin map

A software update cycle

Basic cycle diagram

Key milestones to complete a project or task

Timeline diagram

Basic steps in the hiring process

Basic process diagram

Free Sources for Ready-to-Use Information Graphics

Eurostat ( provides options for customizing and downloading statistics in graphs and maps.

The Data section of The World Bank’s website ( contains indicators, country statistics, and more in map and graph formats.

American FactFinder ( offers mapped U.S. demographic data from the Decennial Census, American Community Survey, and other Census Bureau products.

HealthMap ( reports global data on disease outbreaks, and you can create, save, share, and comment on maps.

MarketingCharts ( publishes new charts daily, including industry statistics, opinion polls, and top 10 lists.

Google Trends ( and Google Insights for Search ( visually display keyword search trends.

MetroTrends (,29), from the Urban Institute, maps employment data by industry.

Marcy Phelps ( is president, Phelps Research, and the author of Research on Main Street: Using the Web to Find Local Business and Market Information.

Comments? Contact the editor (

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