Accessible Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter August 3, 2012

Comprehension of Graphs and Tables Depend on the Task: Empirical Evidence from Two Web-Based Studies

Matthias Schonlau and Ellen Peters


Graphs and tables are an effective means of communication. However, relatively little experimental work exists examining differences between various formats in how well people understand provided information. We conducted two web-based experiments with a large, diverse sample to explore the effects of display format on respondents’ comprehension. We found that comprehension depended on task. Graphs were better for estimating differences; however, tables were better when estimating equality and sums. We found 3D display formats reduced comprehension of pie charts but not of bar charts. Although pie charts never assisted comprehension, they often did not significantly impair comprehension either. Comprehension based on a 3-way table was as good as that for clustered bar charts but was worse for divided bar charts. Information can be conveyed graphically even with 3-way tables, but the choice of display format needs to be sensitive to the task at hand.

Published Online: 2012-8-3

©2012 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/Boston