How to Build a Brain-Friendly Bar Chart in Domo

The life of preparing and presenting data isn’t easy.


You pour a lot of hard work into designing data visualizations that enlighten your stakeholders and inform decisions.

And yet, sometimes your stakeholders still don’t seem to “get it”. I can tell you, I’ve been there.

It took me years of data visualization training to understand that there were two key reasons my digital analytics data charts weren’t getting understood and acted upon:

  1. I wasn’t choosing the most optimal chart type for my data story.
  2. I wasn’t rendering the chart in the most optimal way for comprehension.

That’s why I find my work at Search Discovery so important and fulfilling. One of the most rewarding things I do is help our business intelligence team work with clients to apply a neuroscience-based data design best practices using Domo, an enterprise data visualization platform that is taking the business world by storm. Search Discovery is a Domo Premier Partner with 150 successful implementations and counting.

The project’s mission?

To ensure that the visuals we create in Domo for our clients are optimized for accurate interpretation and poised to effectively inform business decisions. Working with many of SDI’s talented digital analysts has shown me that there is a strong need for guidance in this arena, and the two challenges I faced years ago are easily surmounted with a time-tested approach.

So allow me to skip you ahead a few grades, because I firmly believe that a strong foundation in data visualization begins with understanding why and how to create an effective bar chart. Perfecting a bar chart is the foundational exercise of Search Discovery’s data visualization workshops, and a tool such as Domo is a great place to build them!

A single bar chart is the Swiss Army knife of visualizations; horizontal bars are perfectly suited to communicate categorical ranking or composition, while vertical bars are suitable for single metrics trending over time.

But they’re so simple, you say! What fancy skills could be needed to construct a proper bar chart?

Some believe that effective presentation of data is about what you include. For me, effectiveness is proportional to what you take away so that the simplicity of your message clearly stands out.

And a big piece of that is removing visual noise that you don’t need, otherwise known as cognitive load. Cognitive load is defined as “the total amount of mental effort being used by the working memory.” And the working memory is “a cognitive system with a limited capacity that is responsible for temporarily holding information available for processing.” What does this mean exactly?

Think of your working memory as trying to juggle balls that represent pieces of information you’re trying to focus upon. Each bit of visual noise in your chart is adding a ball, and eventually, there will be so many in the air that you’ll drop them all.

Visual noise in your chart is like forcing your audience to juggle too many balls at once.


Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 2.49.37 PM

What’s the solution for preventing brainy ball-dropping?

Since I’m a closet crunchy granola hippie, one of my favorite daily practices is detoxing. And, I carry that practice all the way through to my data visualization work to ensure every pixel provides a purpose.

Luckily, Domo already incorporates some data visualization best practices into their default bar presentation which definitely elevates it a few steps up from a more ubiquitous data viz tool. Even still, there are just a couple of tweaks that will truly allow your data story to stand out.

And in today’s post, I’ll show you exactly how to modify the settings of bar charts in Domo to instantly improve clarity and comprehension with our Brain-Friendly Domo Bar Chart Checklist.


The Brain-Friendly Domo Bar Chart Checklist

No time to read the Domo Bar Chart checklist right now? Download for Domo cleanup to-go

This checklist will methodically go through each of the Chart Properties menus with brief explanations underneath. I’ve created an example using a theoretical sales by marketing channel scenario. I chose the Single Horizontal Bar chart option and selected Marketing Channel as our dimension and # Sales as my metric.

Rendering the graph with no modifications results in something like this:

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.09.47 PM

Let’s get this bar chart shipshape!

1. General

a. Font Size = Largest

i. Domo currently only allows three font sizes. I always suggest the largest size to accommodate your most hard of seeing end consumers. Reduce the font size only if your viewers are viewing the card data on Pages where the labels are forced into a diagonal rotation. It is easier to easier to read smaller horizontal labels than larger diagonal ones.

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.10.44 PM

2. Sorting – There are two methods:

a. In the General menu, set Sort on Totals = Descending.

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.11.20 PM

b. OR Drag whichever metric the chart is displaying to the Sorting card and choose Aggregation → Sum and Order →  Descending (unless you are encoding a metric where lower is more important).

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.11.41 PM

c. NOTE: DO NOT categorically sort bars that represent a time series, such as months. Time is best represented linearly from left to right.

3. Bar Settings —> Height / Width Percentage = 75

a. The optimal width between bars is half of each bar width. In Excel, you would change Bar Gap Width to 50%. However, in Domo, this setting represents the width of the bar PLUS the gap between the next bar. So in order to arrive at the appropriate width, you set the total width percentage to 75% (leaving off the % sign).

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.12.09 PM

4. Grid Lines

a. Zero Line Color = Transparent  {UPDATE: Domo no longer allows you to set any colors to Transparent or a hex value of your choice. Your prior settings should be grandfathered in, but going forward you cannot make this change.}

b. Check Remove max/min lines (unless these lines provide clear value to you and the consumer)

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.13.12 PM

5. Data Label Settings

a. Text =  %_VALUE, %_PERCENT_OF_TOTAL (if displaying composition).

i. I directly label each bar so that there’s no need for the audience to interpret the bars against the axis or grid lines. Especially for composition graphs, I find both the absolute and percent of total values to be of use to viewers.

b. Position = Outside Right

c. Use Scale Format → Yes

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.13.43 PM

6. Value Scale (X for horizontal bars, Y for vertical bars)

a. Max Gridlines = 0

i. Grid lines serve the purpose of allowing the viewer to interpret each bar’s length, yet they add significant visual noise to the graph. I recommend removing them to create a clean plot area and add data labels instead (stay tuned). At time of writing, the only way I know of removing all but the top gridline is by setting the max to zero.

b. Value Scale Max = 1.25 X highest bar value

i. The most effective bar comparison happens when the maximum bar value is about 75% of the scale [source]. You can achieve this by calculating 125% of your maximum bar value and entering that as the Max. Keep attention on this over time if your categorical or ranking values dramatically fluctuate.

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.14.07 PM

7. Hover Text Settings


i. I like to make my Data Labels and Hover Text consistent for rollovers; feel free to add relevant data points as desired.

b. Percent Value Decimal Places = .0

i. I set the decimal places of any label to the number required to productively distinguish between two values in the view. Once again, this is to minimize extraneous visual noise. Think 12.4% and 12.9% vs. 12.395837% and 12.900478%.

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.14.51 PM

8. Colors – Use neutral blue or gray palettes (avoid red and green)

a. Color is a cornerstone of effective data interpretation. Red and green have cultural significance in our culture and could potentially skew a viewer’s perception of the urgency or required attention behind a data point. Domo did a great job of choosing an emotionally-neutral blue as the default color choice. Ideally, I would suggest turning all bars gray and then using blue to single out a specific data point in your story. Since this functionality isn’t out of the box at time of writing, I suggest choosing either blue or gray for all bars.

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.15.18 PM

9. Make the Card Title succinctly informative.

I like to either clearly state the categories and metric being displayed, or phrasing the card title in the form of a business question that the graph is answering.

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.16.52 PM

10. Adjust the format of the Summary Number

a. I suggest considering what number would answer the key question being answered by the graph at the highest aggregate level. And remember to use the most efficient scale abbreviation.

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.17.20 PM

11. Adjust the Label to clearly described the Summary Number.

12. Voila! You’ve just created a beautifully simple, clean and easy-to-interpret Domo bar chart:

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.17.56 PM

BONUS TIP: If you’d like to use color to emphasize one data point, hover over your selected data point and take a screenshot. You’ll have an image that highlights one bar in a standout blue with the others set to the background like so:

Screen Shot 2020 07 22 at 3.18.30 PM

Final Thoughts

It is imperative for a data designer to create a seamless visualization experience for their audiences. This will enable your organization to make the most out of even the most advanced data visualization platforms. I hope I’ve shown you today that the simplest tweaks can make a big impact on how your data story hits home with your executive audience.

And, if you’re ready to make the most out of your Domo investment, or more information on the Search Discovery data visualization workshops, contact us and learn how we can help you make better decisions with your Domo data.

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