Association Analytics Blog

How to Choose the Right Visualization for your Association

Nov 18, 2013 6:00:05 AM / by Jasmin Ritchie

Choosing the right data visualization is as important as choosing the right outfit to wear to an important meeting. Although your alma mater’s sweatshirt is perfect for the ball game, a suit and tie is more appropriate when trying to convince your board to increase your budget. Similarly, you are going to catch some flack for showing up to the game in a suit and tie! Choosing the right visualization for your audience is similar to choosing the right outfit for the function.

Did you know that the human brain is able to process images three times faster than text? From our primitive beginning, we’ve depended on our brain’s ability to detect subtle patterns and interpret meaning. So, how do you choose the right visualization? Let’s take a look at some common types of visualization and when they should be used to effectively communicate the story your data is telling.



  • Best used when exact quantities of numbers must be known.
  • Numbers are presented in rows and columns and may contain summary information, such as averages or totals.
  • This format is NOT favorable to finding trends and comparing sets of data because it is hard to analyze sets and numbers and the presentation is cumbersome with larger data sets. It is estimated that the visual working memory has a capacity of about seven items. This means that you can store up to 7 bits of information (like numbers) in your brain’s “RAM” simultaneously. If you build a table with financial information for each month of the year for different areas of your association, it becomes difficult to find outliers or even the most profitable month.
  • This kind of visualization is likely what many association staff are accustomed to (think of all those excel spreadsheets floating around your office) so you may need to use a tabular format in conjunction with one of the other types listed below to convey the information.
  • A variation of the tabular chart is a highlight table. A highlight table applies color to the cell based on its value. The use of color can make outliers stand out more.

 Line Charts

line chart

  • Best used when trying to visualize continuous data over time.
  • Line charts use a common scale and are ideal for showing trends in data over time.
  • Example: membership or registrant counts throughout the year compared to previous years.
  • Trend lines and goal lines can also be added to compare actual counts with certain benchmarks.

Bar Charts

bar chart

  • Best used when showing comparisons between categories.
  • The bars are proportional to the values they represent and can be shown either horizontally or vertically. One axis of the chart shows the specific categories being compared, and the other axis represents discrete values.
  • Example: Bar charts can be helpful when looking at certain segments of your customers, registrants or members.
  • Goal lines can also be added to compare the actual counts with your benchmarks.
  • A variation of the bar chart is the stacked bar chart. This incorporates the use of color to visually show how certain segments add up to the total. In the example above, it’s easy to see that while 2010 Conference attendance counts are higher, the number of Paid attendees actually decreased from the previous year.
  • Another variation of the bar chart is called a bullet chart. This chart allows you to take a single measure (for example, revenue) and compare it to another measure (for example, revenue goal). It also can display percentiles.

bullet chart

Pie Charts

pie chart

  • Best used to compare parts to the whole.
  • Pie charts make it easy for an audience to understand the relative importance of values.
  • Using this format for more than 5 sections is not recommended as it can become difficult to compare the results. Too many sections make interpretation difficult because the difference between the sections can become too narrow to effectively interpret.
  • Often, even when wanting to compare parts to the whole, a bar chart can be more effective.

In addition to difference chart types, the use of filters and sorting is important to increase the association staff person’s ability to explore the data in more detail.

The goal of any visualization should be to communicate the information in the most concise and impactful way by using the appropriate visualizations for your data.  Effective visualizations enable your audience to quickly understand the story in the data and speeds the ability for association staff to reach key insights.

Topics: Data Visualization, associations, Dashboards, data discovery, data visualization, Tableau, analytics, Business Intelligence, nonprofits

Jasmin Ritchie

Written by Jasmin Ritchie