How to Make Top-Ten Charts Easier to Read

Top-ten figures are useful because managers need to know where the greatest opportunities and the worst problems are. Here are ideas to make them readable.

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Top-ten figures are useful because managers need to know where the greatest opportunities and the worst problems are. Here are ideas to make them readable.Managers need to know where the greatest opportunities and the worst problems can be found. This is why top-item figures are so popular.

These figures typically are titled Top-Ten Reports, or 80-20 Reports. To create them, Excel users sort a category by the value of interest for each item, typically with the largest value first, and then display only the most significant values.

Often, these figures also show the cumulative percentage for those top items. These 80-20 versions usually include the number of items that represent at least 80% of the total.

In Weekly & Monthly Top-Ten Activity Reports I showed two of Chris Helfrecht’s activity-report dashboards. These concentrated on top-ten activity. Here is a rescaled version of one of his figures:

A rescaled version of a top-ten-item figure from the original report.

At first glance, this looks like a useful figure. It ranks about 30 items by their performance and uses the red line to show each item’s cumulative percentage. However, I have the following objections to this figure:

1. The item labels are difficult to read, for two reasons. We need to tip our head sideways to read them, and the text is in all caps.

2. The most obvious information that the red line provides is that the cumulative percentage starts low and rises to 100%. This “information” isn’t useful. What we really want to know is the cumulative percentage for each item, and that it is difficult to discover with this chart.

3. The chart is too large. The more easily understandable information that a dashboard can display, the better, but this chart steals space from other figures.

4. The chart shows too many items. By definition, top-item charts display only the most-significant items. But this chart displays ten or fifteen insignificant items. Those extra items waste dashboard space and the attention of busy managers.

Charley Kyd's revised top-ten bar chart.

Here’s my revised version. You can see that I made the following changes:

1. I changed the chart from a column chart to a bar chart. This rotates the labels so they can be read easily.

I also used Excel’s PROPER function to display the items in upper-lower case.

Also, to make it easier for people to talk about each item, I added a sequence number to the labels. Which would you rather say?: “Look at the performance of item 6”? Or, “Look at the performance of Screw-Ss”?

2. I replaced the red line with data labels that show the cumulative percentage of each item.

3. By eliminating the insignificant items, and by simplifying the value labels from something like “$40,000” to “40K”, I was able to make the figure about half its previous size.

These links provide more detailed information: