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An experimental comparison of tabular and graphic data presentation
Powers M., Lashley C., Sanchez P., Shneiderman B. International Journal of Man-Machine Studies20 (6):545-566,1984.Type:Article
Date Reviewed: May 1 1985

For presenting quantitative information, is it better to use graphics, tables, or a combination of display formats? What form of data presentation is easier to understand and remember?

To answer these questions, one needs to conduct a controlled study to help sort out the effects of factors like memory and display format on comprehension. Powers et al. have designed such an experiment to test the hypothesis that more usable information can be conveyed using a combination of graphic and tabular data than by using either format alone. In their study, data in graphic, tabular, and graphic + tabular formats were presented to subjects, who were later given a multiple-choice questionnaire to test their understanding of the material. The study was structured as a two-by-three experimental design: the independent variables were memory (two levels, recall vs. non-recall) and format (three levels, graphic vs. tabular vs. graphic + tabular). Material for the study consisted of hypothetical test scores and letter grades, which were arrayed in the formats described above and presented to 74 subjects (undergraduates in computer science courses). Performance of these subjects on the questionnaire was measured by a weighted method that took account of number of items attempted, number answered correctly, and complexity of each item.

Overall, the accuracy of performance (percentage correct) was highest when data were presented in the graphic + tabular format and subjects were not required to recall the materials from memory. From this finding, the authors go on to generalize to data users who wish to present quantitative information in business settings: viz., they should use both graphs and tables and review details prior to presenting the information at meetings. This recommendation is of course straightforward and useful as general advice, but does not follow directly from the work reported in the article. The experimental design has two major problems which stand in the way of making the generalization work:

  • (1) The variables of MEMORY and COMPREHENSION are defined ambiguously between data users (“managers”) and data understanders (“audience”); but performance is measured solely by looking at how well the “audience” (subject pool) does on questionnaires.

  • (2) The graphic displays used in the study differ with respect to inherent complexity.

According to recent work of Cleveland and McGill [1], the line plots, pie charts, and bar graphs which comprise the “graphics” treatment in the experiment would each present different levels of perceptual difficulty to subjects.

In the opinion of this reviewer, future work should be focused on simplifying the experimental design and taking more care to control for materials effects, instead of increasing the complexity and volume of data to be presented to subjects (as the authors suggest). Advice on how to present data to the board of directors should wait for more conclusive findings]

Reviewer:  J. R. Kornfeld Review #: CR108861
1) Cleveland, W. S.; and McGill, R.Graphical perception: theory, experimentation & applications to the development of graphical methods, J. Am. Stat. Assoc. 79 (1984), 531–554.
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