making a case for stacked bars

When I review common types of visuals used in a business setting during my workshops, one of the graphs we discuss is the stacked bar chart. I typically say something like the following:

“While we’re on the topic of bars, let’s talk about another common bar chart: the stacked bar graph. Stacked bars work well when you want to compare totals across different categories, and then within a given category, you want some understanding of the subcomponent pieces. Notice though, that they work less well if you want to compare those subcomponent pieces across categories. This is because as soon as you get past the first series, you no longer have a consistent baseline to use to compare. This is a harder comparison for our eyes to make, so something to keep in mind when reaching for stacked bars.”

I’ve noticed lately, though, that when a client shares a stacked bar as a makeover candidate, it usually gets remade into something else. Which has me pondering… Is there really a good use case for the (non-100%) stacked bar?

The most common scenario in which I see stacked bars used is to show total over time and also the change in composition. For example, I was just looking at a workshop example like this that depicted revenue over time: the overall height of the bars represented total revenue and then each bar was subdivided into source of revenue, in an attempt to show how the source of revenue was shifting over time as overall revenue changed. Here’s a quick sketch of what it looked like:

Stacked bar sketch - before.png

To me, this was a clear case where, by attempting to answer too many questions with a single visual, we don’t answer any one of them as well as we could if we broke it up into multiple visuals. In this case, my recommended view had a line graph showing total revenue over time, and a 100% stacked bar chart to show the relative shift in composition (revenue source). This is roughly what the visuals looked like (the real version was paired with additional explanatory text and emphasis that I've omitted for simplicity):

Stacked bar sketch - after.png

There is a challenge that frequently arises with the stacked bar: if anything interesting is happening further up the stack, it becomes challenging to see it because it’s stacked on top of other things that are also changing. This means potentially important components of the data or what we can learn from it can get lost or missed. In the above scenario, for example, there was an interesting shift happening in source of revenue over time that was hard to see in the original graph.

I’ve been racking my brain for good examples of stacked bars to figure out whether I should change how I discuss their use. I’ll ask for your help on this front momentarily.

I do have a couple of examples that are top of mind. There is a horizontal stacked bar that I highlight in Chapter 6 of my book as a model visualization:

In the above example, the most important thing is the length of the overall bars. It’s interesting to know what the subcomponent pieces are as a proportion of the given bar, but there isn’t a strong need to be able to compare those subcomponent pieces across bars. I think this works. Though I should mention that I’ve also received feedback (a one-off comment, so no idea how representative it is) that this particular visual is confusing.

As I write this, it occurs to me that I did also use a stacked bar in my prior blog post. This was a case where I wanted the audience to focus on the stacked piece (there were only two data series stacked on each other in this example), but the big picture opportunity the stacked portion illustrated across the various bars was more important than specific comparisons between the bars.

With that prelude, I'll turn the conversation over to you—have you seen examples of stacked bars that are effective? These can be vertical or horizontal (I think it's coincidence that the two I highlight above that work are horizontal and the one that didn't as well is vertical, but perhaps that's not the case?). Also, I limit my question here to the non-100% versions, as I do think there are more common use cases for 100% stacked bars, since you get additional flexibility with multiple baselines to align by and compare across (top and bottom-most data series in vertical 100% stacked, or left and right-most in horizontal 100% stacked). But I’m struggling to come up with many great use cases for simple stacked bars.

Please share your thoughts and examples by emailing them to by Wednesday, 11/22. Is there an example from your work where you’ve used a stacked bar effectively that you can share? (Please don’t share anything confidential—anonymize as needed.) Have you seen good examples in the media or elsewhere? Are there use cases you can imagine where a stacked bar would work well? What considerations should we keep in mind when using stacked bars? It will work best if you can share a visual, even if it's a simple sketch like I’ve included above.

I will pull together what I receive into a follow-up post. Stay tuned on that front and in the meantime I look forward to hearing from you RE: stacked bars!