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Visualization Tip: Use Sparklines to Show Trends in Technical Communications


Sparklines provide quick visualization of trends.
Sparklines provide a quick visualization of trends.

Sparklines are a powerful visualization tool to convey trends and patterns quickly. Sparklines can be seamlessly integrated into text and tables, making them ideal in various applications, from reports to dashboards. Multiple sparklines can be used to produce quick understanding through comparative analysis. It’s time to start using sparklines in your technical communication with senior management.

 

What Are Sparklines?

Sparklines are small, simple charts embedded in text, tables, or other spaces. They provide a condensed visual representation of trends and variations. This technique is sometimes overlooked but can be a powerful way to incorporate data visualization into textual content.

 

Creating Sparklines

There are several commercial tools for creating sparklines.


I prefer Microsoft Excel, which has built-in support for creating sparklines. You can find the Sparkline feature in the "Insert" tab. It allows you to generate small, simple charts within a cell quickly.


Google Sheets and Tableau can also generate sparklines rather easily.

 

How to Create Sparklines in Excel

Adding sparkline markers in Excel only takes a few simple steps:

  1. Select a blank cell where you want to display a sparkling.

  2. Click “Insert."

  3. Choose the type of sparkline you want (Line, Column, or Win/Loss).

  4. Select a range of cells in the data range box.

  5. Click “OK.” The sparkline will appear on the ribbon.

  6. The “Style” tab allows you to use different colors and formats.

 

Some Examples of Sparklines

Publications across the business, finance, science, healthcare, and weather forecasting sectors use sparklines. I have seen sparklines used in Science, Nature, Harvard Business Review, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.


My Microsoft Start Center uses sparklines to show comparative trends.
My Microsoft Start Center uses sparklines to show comparative trends.

Sparklines are used in my Microsoft Start Center, too.


Common Weaknesses of Sparklines

Using sparklines should be considered in the context of the audience, the nature of the data, and the specific purpose of communication. Common concerns include:

  • Sparklines often lack context and detailed information.

  • Complex datasets might not be effectively summarized using simplistic sparklines.

  • Sparklines rely heavily on visual cues, which can create accessibility issues.

  • The simplification of data into sparklines might result in the loss of granular details.

  • Due to their simplicity and minimalistic design, individuals might interpret sparklines differently.

  • Sparklines might not effectively highlight outliers or anomalies in data.

  • Sparklines are more about trends and patterns rather than specific values.

 

Communicating with FINESSE

The first I in FINESSE stands for Illustrate, which includes the visualization needed for effective communication on big decisions with high complexity and uncertainty. As always, using any visualization tool should be considered in the context of the audience, the nature of the data, and the specific purpose of communication. But there is little doubt that senior management loves the quick understanding through comparative analysis that sparklines create. Are you Communicating with FINESSE?

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