Mini Charts : Sparklines : Usage scenarios

Please read the previous article about Sparklines before reading this article.

Financial statements

Typical financial statements show data in reverse order. Current year first followed by past years.

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You have to read each number from right to left and then compare them mentally to form a pattern. Then we read each row and try to correlate it with other rows.

Now see the same data with Sparklines.

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Problem: Chart is visually in reverse order

Look at the Operating Income. At the first glance it looks as though it is decreasing over time. But in reality, it is increasing over time – data is in reverse order.

To avoid this visual confusion, choose the Sparkline Tools –
Axis options – Plot from right to left. Problem solved.

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Comparing Quotations, Specifications, Scores

Any kind of comparison can be performed visually using Sparklines as long as the data is numeric.

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Notice how it helps you see a clear difference across the models without reading the numbers. It highlights the winner clearly and without ambiguity.

How does it happen? Because it takes the minimum value across the row as the beginning of the axis. Usually all bar charts start with zero. However in this case, the Power bar chart is starting at 177. Therefore the smaller value becomes visually insignificant.

Due to this visual contrast, it is easier to interpret the information. Of course, remember that this may lead you to underestimate actual values. If you want true to life representation of proportions, traditional charts are better.

Mini-charts: New method of visualizing data

The need

Visual data analysis usually means charts. But now there is a new way available in Excel (since Version 2010). There are some limitations of using charts.

  • In some cases, traditional charts don’t work well. Primary and secondary Y axis allows two different scales of data to be shown visually. But more than three scales impossible to plot.
  • Chart is a separate layer and needs to handled separately.
  • Charts occupy lot of space because there are so many elements to be shown like gridlines, axes, labels and so on.
  • If you try to reduce the chart size, the pattern gets flattened and difficult to interpret.

Using SparkLines

Sparkline is a chart drawn in a single cell based upon data from multiple cells. Select one or more blank cells. Choose Insert Sparklines – Line. Select the input data. Click OK.

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You can apply this to multiple rows or columns. Make sure you select the data correctly.

If you use this in a table, when more data is added to the table, new Sparkline will be automatically added. You can also increase the Sparkline by dragging it from the corner – just like formulas.

Powerful customization possible

When you Click inside the Sparkline, the Sparkline Tools tab appears. Make sure you go through EVERY option of this menu. You can then customize the visualization for your data quickly.

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To show fluctuation across time? Use Line Sparkline

To show relative size of the data, use Bar Sparkline

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This diagram uses Line for monthly fluctuation and Bar for country specific values.

To show positive vs negative use Win/Loss

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The last column is Win/Loss type of chart. It only depicts positive or negative outcome (Profit / Loss or Pass / Fail or Select / Reject). The line chart shows the fluctuation. In order to visually understand negative values, the Show Axis option puts a reference line at the zero position.

Mark the max or min values for easier interpretation

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In case of bar style, the minimum value is always shown as a thin line. Negative minimum values look better in bars.

In the next article, we will explore some interesting practical scenarios for using Sparklines.