There’s more than one way to visualize those agree-disagree survey scales. Today, let’s look at seven of your choices.
Last month I spoke to Harvard University graduate students about visualizing survey results. I made up some fake numbers to accompany their real survey questions.
Stacked bar chart with diverging color palette
Option A is a stacked bar chart. I chose horizontal bars over vertical bars because I arrange ordinal variables from left to right across the page. I also chose to display numbers of people instead of percentages. I use numbers when we’ve got fewer than 100 responses and I convert those numbers into percentages when we’ve got more than 100 responses.
Agree/disagree survey scales are diverging variables so we need a diverging color palette. I selected two hues (blue and red). The most saturated version of each color goes on the outer poles. The only problem with this traditional approach is that the graph is a bit crowded. Where are the viewers supposed to look? What’s most important? When everything all at once is competing for attention, it’s easy to lose viewers.
Drawing attention to strongly agree or to strongly disagree
Option B draws attention to the strongly agree responses. This is a good option for personalities who like to see the world through rose-colored glasses.
Option C draws attention to strongly disagree responses. This is a good option for internal audiences or for audiences with whom you’ve already built some trust and rapport. Very few viewers have an appetite for bad news.
I often use a combination of these two styles when presenting slideshows to live audiences. On the first slide, I show the good news. A few moments later, I show the bad news on the next slide. Then, we pause and discuss what might’ve led to these results.
Option D combines the strongly agree and agree responses and the disagree and strongly disagree responses. This approach can declutter a crowded graph; focus viewers on big-picture patterns; whet their appetite for additional details when they’ve got time to spare; or satisfy their appetite for just a bit of information if they’re in a hurry.
Diverging stacked bar chart
Option E is a diverging stacked bar chart in which the agrees slide over to the left and the disagrees slide over to the right.
Option F draws our attention to the poles.
Finally, I built four square pies that draw attention to the strongly agree and agree responses. Square pies are a good option for small n‘s because each shape subtly reminds us that we’re talking about a small group of real human beings. You could take this concept a step further with illustrated icons instead of squares. But good luck finding an icon to represent feeling connected to a museum or having your voice valued…
Which option is best for your own projects, and why?
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