Sort information meaningfully before presenting it

Shapes sorted

Posted by Ray Poynter, 28 September 2020


I run a wide range of courses on finding and communicating the story in the data. One of the things I cover in my sessions is the need to organise the information by something meaningful. All too often, I see presentations where the slides show the information in the order the questions were asked in the questionnaire. I often see outputs where the information on a slide shows the ordering that was used in the question asked. (I also often see segmentation studies where the order the segments are listed repeats the near-random ordering the clustering algorithm used when creating them.)

The information should be presented in ways that optimise:

  1. The story you are communicating
  2. The ease of use/comprehension for the user.

Here is an example that I am using in a course I am running for the Japanese Market Research Association, showing bad and good practice.

Deaths per million, not sorted

This chart shows the data in alphabetical order, which is the order that I downloaded from the source. This order is the correct order for a table of information where somebody might be searching for data from a specific country – but it does not help people understand the similarities and differences between countries.

Deaths per million, sorted

This chart shows the countries sorted from the highest number of deaths per million people to the lowest. Now it is easy to see who has the worst figures and who has the best. It is also easy to see where the number of cases per million is correlated to the number of deaths (e.g. Brazil, USA, and Germany), and cases where the number of confirmed cases look to be low compared with the number of deaths per million (e.g. UK, Italy & Sweden).

What is the ‘right’ order?

There is no single right order for the data to be sorted into. It depends on the story. For the data above it might be relevant to sort by the number of cases per million, if that was the story, or it might be relevant to focus on the gap between cases and deaths. However, there is one strong rule. The order of the items on a chart (or in a table), and the order of the slides in a presentation or pages in a report, should be the result of a conscious decision. You need to think about the options and make a positive choice about the one you think works best for

  1. The story you are communicating
  2. The ease of use/comprehension for the user.

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