I came up with the idea for this article on the last webinar, which I had the pleasure to conduct with my coworkers. One of the participants paid attention to the starting point of the line chart, which I presented. He noticed that the starting point of the axis wasn’t in “0”. He addressed it with the famous book by Alberto Cairo “How Charts Lie” and commented that the line chart should have started at 0.
There is no doubt when it comes to the bar chart that it should ALWAYS start at 0. Bar charts encode data by length. People have developed the ability to compare objects in terms of length for thousands of years of evolution. Thanks to that they were able to estimate how high the food hangs on a tree branch or compare themselves with the enemy to fight or escape. Placing starting point in non-zero skews data and misleads our audience, because in the first place, unconsciously, they will start comparing bars length.
Of course, we can label bars and axes properly. The crime would be to switch off the Y-axis (in such case), what I observe from time to time. But even then in our brain, there is cognitive dissonance. Numbers don’t reflect lengths and proportions. Lengths and proportions are what our brain will remember because numbers are quite fresh phenomenon for our brain.
Let’s compare below examples for the bar and line chart with zero and the non-zero starting point and check what consequences it might have in the interpretation of data.
Skewed Y-axis & Bar Chart
To have no heart attack in the near future and be still in fit, WHO (World Health Organization) recommends taking a 10 000 steps per day. There are plenty of apps which can track your daily physical activities. Above charts presenting my recent results from the same range of dates. On the left side chart, a proper baseline is applied in 0. All daily results fluctuating nearby the daily goal. In one second, the level of dopamine in my blood pomps up looking at bars achieving the daily target.
The right chart doesn’t give me a reason to be proud of my self at first glance. Firstly, my brain notices gaps between bars and target line. And OMG, twice I almost took no steps! If you don’t notice Y-axis label, you can interpret this chart so dramatically. Worse, if you just had a chance to see it for a few second, you would probably make such a conclusion. Your brain wouldn’t have time to notice Y-axis labelling. But two times I exceeded the target more than twice. Awesome! Everything WRONG.
Skewed Y-axis & Line Chart
A different situation is with line charts. There is no length to compare. There are only slops and positions. In this case, context and narration play first fiddles.
On these line charts, the same data set is presented. From the chart on the left side, we can take out a similar story. The performance is almost aligned with the target. However, looking on the right chart, our brain doesn’t make automated assumptions on lengths because there are no lengths. We see connected dots.
And now is a question. Does the non-zero axis skews data at line chart or not?
There is a discussion around it. Still, non-zero baseline, even though there are no bars to compare, can mislead the audience, presenting steep slope of tiny mountains. However, in some cases, having a particular purpose in mind, it can be the best option to choose. Non-zero axis at line charts is good for presenting minor fluctuations or changes of phenomenons like stock exchange rates, products quality tracking (production series) etc. Especially, tracking performance within companies. Even small changes can have a huge impact.
In our scenarios. Well, to pat on the back myself, I would choose the bar chart with “0″ baseline, but to be able to control my daily results in details, I would definitely choose the line chart with non-zero baseline.