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Graphs vs Tables

Do you know when it’s best to use a table compared to a graph? Do you just pick one at random and hope for the best? As ridiculous as this may sound, how often do you think this is actually the case? Probably a lot more often than we’d like to admit.

In this article, we will cover these four main points.

  • What is a table?
  • What is a graph?
  • When is it best to use a table?
  • When is it best to use a graph?

By the time you finish reading this article, you should know exactly when a graph is appropriate versus a table.

What is a Table?

A table is simply a structure for organizing and displaying information. Furthermore, two main attributes apply to tables.

  • The information is arranged in rows and columns
  • The information is represented through words and numbers

In other words, a table looks like this.

 

It is important to note that tables do not require grid lines to qualify as a table. For example, take a look at the table below.

This table does not contain any grid lines, but it is still a table of data nonetheless.

What is a Graph?

A graph is a visual display of quantitative information. Furthermore, graphs exhibit the following characteristics:

  • Values are drawn within an area delineated by one or more axes
  • Values are represented as visual objects positioned in relation to the axes
  • The axes contain labels that are used to assign values to the visual objects

In other words, a graph looks something like this.

There are many different types of graphs as well. For instance, there are two more graphs below.

When to Use a Table?

There are three main scenarios in which you should choose to represent your data in a table rather than a graph.

  • To look up individual values
  • To easily see one-to-one comparisons
  • To view data including several different units of measure at once

To Look Up Individual Values

Tables encode values as text, therefore, it is easy to interpret precise exact values in an instant. This is a level of precision that cannot be provided by graphs as easily.

To See One-to-One Comparisons

Along with encoding values as text, tables have a very simple structure. This makes it easy to look at and compare two values within the table.

To View Multiple Units of Measure

A graph usually contains a single quantitative scale with a single unit of measure. Tables do not have this limitation.

When to Use a Graph

Graphs present an overall shape of the data due to their visual nature. This is much harder to see when looking only at a table of values. Therefore, it is best to use a graph when:

  • You are trying to show patterns, trends, and exceptions
  • You are trying to reveal relationships among whole sets of values

Show Patterns, Trends, and Exceptions

To understand how graphs are much more effective than tables in displaying patterns or trends, take a look at the example below.

Do you see any obvious trends in the data within the table? How about when you view this same information in the form of a graph?

As you can see, the graph makes the pattern much more visible to the reader. You can see that the numbers are slowly trending upward over time.

Reveal Relationships Among Sets of Values

Once again, the best way to see how graphs are better at showing relationships amount sets of values, take a look at the example below.

Can you spot how the two data sets are related? How about when you see this data represented in a line graph?

Looking at the data within the graph, it is much easier to see how the two data sets relate to each other overall. You can clearly see that the values are inversely related.

Now that you have a better understanding of tables and graphs, you should now be able to pick the best tool for the job depending on what you are trying to accomplish.

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