Saturday, May 7, 2011

CEP chart redesign

A few weeks ago, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) asked for some data visualization help via a post to their blog. Around the same time, they reached out to me after hearing about my recent presentation at the Grant Managers Network Conference. 

The CEP provides foundations and other philanthropic organizations with comparative data to understand how they perform across various aspects compared to other foundations. Their challenge is presenting this rich comparative data back to their audience in a straightforward fashion. Here is an example of the visual they've been using:


In response to feedback they have received that the chart is difficult to understand, the CEP decided to revisit the design. Their requirements for the visual is as follows; the chart must:
  • Be flexible enough to display segmentation of overall data and trend data;
  • Simultaneously display both an absolute scale and relative results; and
  • Display comparative context so that one funder can consider its relative results compared to the database of others' results.

This was a challenge I was excited to be enlisted to help solve. I had two reactions to the current CEP visual:
  1. It's complicated. A lot of information is being presented on this graph. Because it looks complex, it may turn off some of the audience. Also, there are many different comparisons that can be made with the visual, which can be overwhelming. My recommendation: reduce the amount of information in the visual; prioritize the key pieces.
  2. There's a lot to remember. On average, people can keep about 4 pieces of information in their short term memory at a given time. With so many different shapes and colors, the reader constantly has to refer back and forth between the graph and the legend on the right to decipher the graph. My recommendation: label graph directly to reduce the interpretation burden.

My first approach was to preserve the fundamental design of the chart, but streamline it by eliminating items that don't add informative value and reducing the number of comparisons in the main visual. I ended up with the following.


I wasn't particularly happy with this makeover. Though the visual has been simplified (and second-order comparisons moved to the table below the graph), it still looks complicated. I'm afraid we may lose some of the audience with this visual: like the original, it is intimidating. I decided to try a completely different approach. Here's what I came up with:


Bar charts are easy for people to read. They are common, which means no learning curve for the audience to get at the information. People's eyes can easily see the difference between the end points of the bars, making comparisons between values easy.

I shared this redesign with the CEP. While they liked the straightforward approach, they worried that it underemphasized the comparative data, which is the core of their value proposition. Based on this feedback, I tweaked the redesign to the following.


This design shifts the emphasis and focus to the comparative values by drawing the audience's eye with color. The vertical lines at the cohort funders and all funders median values make for an easy comparison between a given foundation's trend over time and programs and the CEP's comparative data.

The CEP had an advisory committee meeting yesterday, where they reviewed my redesigns as well as some alternate views that they created in house. I'm very interested to hear what approach they will take!

Leave a comment if you have feedback on the redesign, or ideas on alternate ways of visualizing this data.


  1. The fact that they have some 'in-house' ideas seems worrying. I find that very often organisations (or rather, directors) tend to prefer the showy (and more often than not, useless) ways of showing data (widgety dashboards, speedometers etc). I certainly hope they take on your advice as I think you've made the data easy to read and very straightforward.

  2. We use CEP and I found the chart, "complex". I'm going to ask for ours to be re-issued under the visualogy above.

  3. Big fan of seeing you outline your process here (just subscribed!) - the improvement is impressive. At first glance of the third chart though, I couldn't help but feel unsure of which piece of the graph to first look at. The blue at the bottom attracts the eye, but is counter to the natural top-to-bottom progression we expect; I'm also doubtful that the organization truly wants the viewer to see the comparisons scores before that of the foundation at hand, but could be wrong there. I wonder if the same overall structure switching the blues and grays would be less confusing, as the first thing your eyes would then be drawn to (top bar) shows you the three most important metrics: 2011 foundation and two comparisons (blue bar + gray vertical lines).

    I was also unable to quickly match the vertical lines to the median bars they represent; the color scheme and text made it obvious after a couple seconds, but my familiarity (from reading the rest of your post) may have given me an advantage over first-time viewers. Not sure of a way to clarify further without introducing clutter (e.g. arrows), but it seems like there may be a way to reduce the comprehension time there.

    Beautiful chart in all, I can already think of some of my analyses that could benefit from the format. Any news on the CEP's decision?