Technical and raw data are not the most accessible content to digest on their own. More often than not, it is always converted into an understandable format for the vast majority. Data tables and graphs are facts displayed as a visual representation of an otherwise chaotic information. Data is only helpful if it proposes some sort of solution. In order to come up with an agreeable solution, data has to be understood and comprehended by the mass audience. We have ancient civilizations (it’s still a debate whether the Babylonians or Egyptians invented table mathematics) to thank for our tables and William Playfair for the existence of graphs. But, what is the difference and is their purpose the same?
If you have to deal with statistics or any sort of data representation from time to time, you might be familiar with tables and graphs. There is no field of study or work that does not use one of the two methods for data analysis. Both methods are great at helping with broad understanding, but when it comes to choosing between graphs and tables, which one should you choose?
A graph is a pictorial representation or a diagram that represents data or values in an organized manner. Whereas, table is a means of arranging data in rows and columns. The use of graphs and tables is pervasive throughout all communication, research and data analysis.
Let us delve further to ensure that we apply the correct format when converting raw data into a visual display.
Table and Graphs: What is the difference?
A table is used to display collated data in text format — words and numbers. A graph shows the data’s information as a visual presentation. While tables represent data through divided rows or categories in columns, a graph is showcased through lines to display changes or trends. While tables retain the actual form of its data, graphs utilize shapes, symbols, and labels to present data for better comprehension.
When to use table
When there is a need to display quantitative data in the most straightforward format without any requirement to show trends, changes, or relationships between variables, using a table is the most effective way.
- Sift through a scope of data probabilities in an easy-to-understand format
- Identify precise information from individual data values
- To view data directly related or corresponding to each other (schedules, comparisons, frequencies, numerical changes)
- View individual data values, not data as a whole
Let’s now look at what raw data looks like without converting it into a properly organized data table. See below. While you get the gist of what it’s meant to convey, it’s difficult and almost impossible to analyze without performing some calculations.
Now, let’s take a look at the data table below.
The table above presents the monthly revenue of each salesperson for the first quarter of the year. Relatively easy to follow and understand, right? It contains the same content as the raw data before this table but organized into categories and its total.
While there may be misconceptions that a data table is purely for viewing purposes or a structured and organized way to perceive or view information, that is not the case at all. There are a lot of more in-depth and extensive ways to use a table, especially as a tool to aid in analyzing trends or applying the ‘What-If’ analysis to arrive at a solution.
When to use a graph
Our brain is wired to process visual data much faster than contents in text format. That is just a scientific fact. When data is presented as visual graphics, it’s easier for our brain to accommodate and comprehend the data presented.
So, when do we use graphs instead of tables?
- To present enormous data into a quick-to-understand format
- Provide an overview of data as a whole
- Display trends, patterns, and relationships of variables graphically
Let’s look at the sample graph above. The data represented is the same exact content shown in the sample table earlier. The difference is the format and method it is presented.
The line graph above enables the audience to identify the relationships between the variables quickly. The graph shows the following:
- Eren J. consistently generated the highest revenue out of all the salespeople
- The month of February is when every single salesperson generated the most revenue
Displaying the data into a graph enables the user and audience to ask: what is the relevance during February? Why did it generate the highest revenue from all the salespeople?
Visual presentation of data, such as a graph, allows complex data information to be understood easier at a glance. When time is a factor, data presented in one image is the more effective format.
Which is better?
The above samples on how to analyze data in a table and graph are the most basic examples. There are more advanced and detailed formats of visual presentation for tables and graphs. While a table can do without a graph, one cannot construct a graph without first encoding its data in a table. However, it doesn’t mean that a table is better than a graph, or vice-versa.
When deciding which format is more suitable to use, consider the following factors and elements:
- Your target audience and how quickly they process information
- The weight of the data to be converted and presented
- The format that can best drive decision-making
While you don’t always need to use graphs to visualize data or reports, deciding between tables or graphs comes down to the best format required to convey data facts effectively.