How to Build a Brain-Friendly Bar Chart in Domo

by Jun 29, 2017

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.

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:

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.

2. Sorting — There are two methods:

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

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).

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).

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)

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

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.

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%.

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.

9. Make the Card Title succinctly informative.

a. 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.

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.

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:
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:

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.