Four Experiments on the Perception of Bar Charts


Bar charts are one of the most common visualization types. In a classic graphical perception paper, Cleveland & McGill studied how different bar chart designs impact the accuracy with which viewers can complete simple perceptual tasks. They found that people perform substantially worse on stacked bar charts than on aligned bar charts, and that comparisons between adjacent bars are more accurate than between widely separated bars. However, the study did not explore why these differences occur. In this paper, we describe a series of follow-up experiments to further explore and explain their results. While our results generally confirm Cleveland & McGill’s ranking of various bar chart configurations, we provide additional insight into the bar chart reading task and the sources of participants’ errors. We use our results to propose new hypotheses on the perception of bar charts.

IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics