Are scatterplots too complex for lay folks?

May 23, 2012

(This article was first published on Data and Analysis with R, at Work, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

Usually, I like to write about the solutions to problems I’ve had, but today I only have a problem to write about.

This is the second research job I’ve had outside of academia, and in both cases I’ve met with resistance when I’ve tried to display bivariate relations using scatterplot. For example, a colleague came past my work computer yesterday while I had on screen a scatterplot with a linear trend line showing. She looked at the plot and blurted out “Wow, that looks complicated!”.

One option that I’ve tried in the past to display bivariate relations where I’d normally use a scatterplot is to discretize, or bin the x variable, and show the average y value for each range level of the x variable. This can certainly can help to show the direction of the relation, but hides the number of data points that go into the averages. I like being able to see the diagonal stick like orientation of a dot cloud signalling a strong correlation, or seeing the loose, circular orientation that signals no apparent correlation.

Do I have to say goodbye to the scatterplot now that I’m outside of academia? Will I ever be able to fruitfully use it again to communicate results to lay folks? Are the bar graph and line graph my only viable tools for data visualization now? Is there something I’m missing that could help people see scatterplots as helpful representations of bivariate relations? I’d appreciate answers to any of my questions.

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