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Embellished Charts – Yes or No?

A recent publication from the University of Saskatchewan examined the effectiveness of embellished charts in comparison to the more traditional minimalist charts most commonly used for business intelligence purposes. The principal aim of this study was to see how aspects such as clarity, information transfer and recall were affected by the addition of embellishments.

The standard wisdom on this question is that embellished Excel charts are often more confusing. The aim of a chart or graph is to get its message across quickly, simply and effectively. Many people are concerned that embellished charts are too cluttered, which results in confusion. It is therefore generally accepted that a chart that incorporates a number of additional unnecessary features will be less effective in terms of clarity and intelligibility. Such charts are also more time consuming and less cost effective, as they take longer to create and may take longer for users to interpret.

However the University of Saskatchewan study yielded some unexpected results. It was found that on average embellished charts were just as easily interpreted by users as the minimalist ones. However, it was also found that the level of recall was much better in the case of the embellished charts up to three weeks later. Put simply, the use of additional features made the charts more interesting and more memorable.

This paper has proved controversial in many ways amongst the business intelligence community. There is now a section of chart designers who believe in creating eye-catching and memorable charts, in order to promote recall. However their detractors point out that this approach may not be feasible. For example, if everyone is trying to create a memorable chart, and if every dashboard features a collection of such embellished charts all that is create is clutter and noise. In the midst of a selection of minimalist charts, a single embellished chart will of course stand out and prove more memorable. However a cluster of such charts becomes confusing and defeats the purpose of embellishment.

Another argument against embellishment is that there is no need for business intelligence charts to be memorable. By the time two or three weeks have elapsed a number of newer more up-to-date charts will have been generated, and the data of the previous charts may be obsolete or redundant. Clearly choosing minimalist or embellished charts is a personal decision, but in terms of dashboards it may be best to steer clear of gaudy attention-seeking charts, especially if you will be displaying more the one chart at a time.

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