I worked in several university research centers before transitioning to applied settings. My favorite position was as a researcher in a longitudinal study of adolescent development. We followed the same cohort of ~175 participants from their preteen years through adulthood. This is and was a major initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health, so we were careful and methodical during every step of the data collection, analysis, and reporting process.

In those formal research settings, I was taught to analyze the data first and visualize the data second. We crunched our numbers and poured through dozens of pages of tables during staff meetings (SAS print-outs in tiny font, which was oh-so-readable). Much later on, while prepping for a conference presentation or journal article submission, we designed graphs to showcase key findings.

Although I learned data analysis and data visualization as two distinct phases, nowadays I mix and mingle them a lot. Our brains can spot patterns in a visualization much faster than we can read through pages of numbers in tables.

I use exploratory visualization techniques early and often. My favorite exploratory visualization techniques are sparklines and data bars. I use these techniques daily, and I want to share them with you, too.



Here’s a two-minute tutorial about sparklines, which are mini line graphs.

I use sparklines during early exploratory analyses when I’m trying to spot juicy patterns. Are my numbers generally going up? Going down? Are there lots of peaks and valleys? Or are the numbers generally flat? I insert these quickie visuals and then sit back and reflect on the patterns I see.

I also use sparklines in dashboard projects, like when I need a one-pager to show to others.

Here’s how to create sparklines:

Data Bars

Here’s another two-minute tutorial about data bars, which are mini bar charts:

Want to Learn More? Enroll in Simple Spreadsheets: From Spreadsheet Stress to Superstardom

Simple Spreadsheets is the course that I wish was available earlier in my career. It goes broad and deep: I included nine videos about sparklines and seven videos about data bars in the full course.

I mastered SPSS and SAS (and dabbled in STATA) during my undergraduate and graduate programs. But then I went into the real world. And even though I worked for a large research firm, I didn’t have access to the same statistical software packages that I learned about in my university courses. I had to teach myself to analyze data in spreadsheet programs like Excel.

I learned lots from coworkers. I borrowed books from the library. I went to every seminar, brown bag, and conference presentation about analytical techniques that I could find. But it still took forever to feel as comfortable in Excel as I did in SPSS and SAS. That’s why I designed Simple Spreadsheets–to make your transition smoother.

Enrollment is limited to 50 students because you deserve one-on-one attention. And this course is only open once a year. When it’s open, it’s open. But when it’s closed, it’s closed. Enroll in Simple Spreadsheets before the seats are gone.