Displaying the Data

Graphs and tables remain the most efficient and practical way to convey a large amount of information, especially comparative information and numbers. Visual presentations are powerful tools for concisely making points that are hard to put into words.

However, while some consumers prefer a graphic presentation, others regard charts as a foreign language. Either they do not know how to read them, or they simply find the process too burdensome. Moreover, some people who do understand what they are seeing still respond negatively to charts, although that reaction can change once they get oriented. This suggests that you need to make a special effort to make your charts attractive and easy to interpret.[1]

Consider the following guidelines for making your charts as user-friendly as possible:

Tip: Avoid Abbreviations and Jargon

Sponsors often use abbreviated text in charts, usually in a well-intentioned effort to conserve space. But abbreviations (e.g., PCMH, ACO, NCQA, CABG), like industry jargon, are not familiar to most health care consumers. If your readers cannot understand the language in the chart, they are unlikely to stick around to tackle the data or scores you are trying to present.

While you could explain the abbreviations in text associated with the chart, it is better to make the chart stand on its own by spelling out all the terminology in the chart itself and using words your audiences is likely to understand. One reason for this approach is that people will not read everything you put on the page, so they may miss your explanation. Another reason involves the limited capacity of readers to process multiple pieces of information; researchers have found that the more you make people read, the less likely they are to understand the message you are trying to convey. To learn more about using reader-centered language, select Tips on Writing a Quality Report.

Tip: Keep Tables a Manageable Size

Anyone who has tried to understand a table that shows the benefits offered by a number of health insurance plans knows how hard it is to follow giant matrices. In a table with dozens of data points (whether numerical scores or symbols), there's simply too much information for people to look at, making it almost impossible to make comparisons and find patterns.

In addition to being boring and intimidating, large tables also require too much effort to find specific pieces of information. People can keep only seven, plus or minus two, ideas in their short-term memory at one time,[2] and those who are older or have lower literacy levels are in the “minus” group. For that reason, it is advisable to show no more than seven providers, or no more than seven measures, in a single graph or table.

If you have more data to present, consider breaking the information into smaller chunks, preferably in a way that has meaning for your readers. For example, rather than listing all the hospitals or medical groups in the State in one table:

  • Create multiple tables that show only the providers available in each region or county, or only the providers that the user selects.
  • Show all the clinical quality measures in one table and the measures related to patient experience in another.

One advantage of a Web-based report is that users can decide what they want to see—for example, which providers to compare or which measures to examine. You may want to limit the number of providers or measures they can select to ensure that the amount of information is manageable.

For related guidance, go to Tips on Designing a Quality Report.

[1] Peters EM, Dieckmann N, Dixon A, Hibbard JH, Mertz CK. Less is More in Presenting Quality Information to Consumers. Medical Care Research and Review 2007. 64(2):169-190.
[2] Miller GA. The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information. Psychological Review 1956, 63:81-97. Available at http://www.musanim.com/miller1956.

Also in "Translate Data Into Information"

Page last reviewed July 2016
Page originally created February 2015
Internet Citation: Displaying the Data. Content last reviewed July 2016. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/professionals/quality-patient-safety/talkingquality/create/display/index.html