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Making people jump over hoops

Shocker: ease of use requires expanding, not restricting, choices

Recently, I noted how we have to learn to hate defaults in data visualization software. I was reminded again of this point when reviewing this submission from long-time reader & contributor Chris P.


The chart is included in this Medium article, which credits Mott Capital Management as the source.

Jc_medium_retailersLook at the axis labels on the right side. They have the hallmarks of software defaults. The software designer decided that the axis labels will be formatted in exactly the same way as the data in that column: this means $XXX.XXB, with two decimal places. The same formatting rule is in place for the data labels, shown in boxes.

Why put tick marks at the odd intervals, 37.50, 62.50, 87.50, ... ? What's wrong with 40, 60, 80, 100, ...? It comes down to machine thinking versus human thinking.

This software places the most recent values into data labels, formatted as boxes that point to the positions of those values on the axis. Evidently, it doesn't have a plan for overcrowding. At the bottom of the axis, we see four labels for six lines. The blue, pink and orange labels point to the wrong places on the axis.

Worse, it's unclear what those "most recent" values represent. I have added gridlines for each year on the excerpt shown right. The lines extend to 2017, which isn't even half over.

Now, consider the legend. Which version do you prefer?


Most likely, the original dataset has columns named " Revenue (TTM)", "Dillard's Revenue (TTM)", etc. so the software just picks those up and prints them in the legend text.


The chart is an output from YCharts, which I learned is a Bloomberg terminal competitor. It probably uses one of the available Web graphing packages out there. These packages typically emphasize ease of use through automating the process of data visualization. Ease of use is defined as rigid defaults that someone determines are the optimal settings. Users then discover that there is no getting around those settings; in some cases, a coding interface is available, which usurps the goal of user-friendliness.

The problem lies in defining what ease of use means. Ease of use should require expanding, not restricting, choices. Setting rigid defaults restricts choices. In addition to providing good defaults, the software designer should make it simple for users to make their own choices. Ideally, each of the elements (data labels, gridlines, tick marks, etc.) can be independently removed, shifted, expanded, reduced, re-colored, edited, etc. from their original settings.


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There has been software around for a long time that will choose nice intervals for graphs. In its favour at least the lower limit is 0. I think very much they need to ask "do we need the current revenue at all?". Probably not, but an option is to put it in the legend e.g. Company (2017 revenue $B) That is something a machine won't think of. Maybe it isn't the best but it would be better.

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