Information is hard

Many of you are probably familiar with Information is Beautiful, a blog that attempts to demonstrate how complex information can be presented in a clear, transparent and visually pleasing manner. They usually succeed, but the latest entry is an absolute horror:

This is not beautiful information. This is a textbook example of information design gone bad. The symbology and colors (pale blue suits for men and pale pink dresses for women), which I find offensive, may be a matter of taste, but the following are matters of fact:

  • There is no clear explanation of what the numbers, the lengths of the bars or the number of silhouettes on each row mean. In fact, there is no explanation whatsoever of what the number of silhouettes or the bars on the right mean.
  • The infographic is supposed to show the gender distribution for various social web sites, but there is no way to actually compare the data for each gender, because the data sets are entirely disjoint.
  • There is no indication of how the data support the conclusion (“99 million more monthly female visitors”).
  • There is a link to a Google spreadsheet containing the raw data, but no explanation of how they were collected, selected and collated.

The only way this infographic can be characterized as beautiful is if you are particularly fond of pastel colors and you print it out and hang it on your wall someplace where you will never get close enough to actually be able to read the text, i.e. if you have no interest whatsoever in the data or the message it is supposed to convey.

I can think of several ways to better present this information:

  • as a bar chart with one column for each site, with each column containing either:
    • side-by-side bars for each gender, with the height of each bar representing either the relative percentage or the absolute number of visitors;
    • stacked bars for each gender, with the height of each bar representing either the relative percentage or the absolute number of visitors;

    sorted, in each case by the relative percentage of either gender;

  • something akin to a population pyramid, with one row for each site, each row having one bar on each side of the axis showing the number of visitors of each gender in absolute numbers, sorted (for purely aesthetic reasons) by total number of visitors.

Whichever representation you choose, the infographic is meaningless unless it allows the viewer to actually compare the data, meaning that you have to show data for both genders for each site.

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