Showing 19 squares to convey '19' - and what to do instead

Making small numbers look even smaller - sneaky 'table' formats

(This click-through has two headings - that's because it appears in two sections of my 'Past emails' page: (1) 'Trendy topics you should mostly avoid'; and (2) 'Showing numbers'. That's because the first bit of the email is on a trendy topic to avoid, and the second bit shows what to do instead... and that's the sneaky 'table' formatting.)

Worried that your readers are innumerate? That they struggle to grasp that '100' is bigger than '87'? No worries, do lots of blocks!  The online version of the UK broadsheet The Telegraph showed the five most and least vaccinated countries in the world. See the Figure below - and as I explain below, my Figure doesn't do justice to how bad the original is.

If you read this on your smartphone, I bet you had to scroll down a lot to see it all. First, Gibraltar and Pitcairn appear side-by-side at the top, then you scroll down to see Malta and Iceland side-by-side, etc. But in the original 'Telegraph' article, it's even worse - you scroll down twice as much, because Pitcairn's blocks would be under Gibraltar's, and Iceland's under Malta's, etc.

So much scrolling - and typography - to show so very little data (10 countries, 10 numbers). Why do this crazy layout?! Well... maybe the blocks help people who grasp stuff visually. Then again, maybe not - if your readers are that innumerate, just give up and go home.

But what to do instead? Something called a 'table' - see the Figure below. 

Notice that, to make small numbers look even smaller, I've done two somewhat unusual things:

I variably round: that is, I round big numbers to no decimal place - their extra digits don't help, they hinder ('116.7....') - and I show smaller numbers to one decimal place (if I didn't, all smaller numbers would be zero);

I remove the leading '0' for these smaller numbers.

(I then shunt the smaller numbers slightly to the right - in effect, I align the bottom five's decimal points with those of the top five, if the top five had any.)  

Unusual, yes, so here's two thoughts on this:

1. Variable rounding often upsets accountants: they say it's inconsistent. Actually it's more consistent, as we'd see if we were to analyse rounding errors... but let's not do that today.

2. Removing the leading '0' - others do it. It's how media sometimes show unfinished overs in cricket. Also, Warren Buffett did it in his Letters to Shareholders up until 2011 - click here for the 2011 report and study the first column of numbers in the first table... the 1999 figure is '.5'. In the 2012 report, it had become '0.5'. A shame.

With thanks to James Moon (my brother) for sending me The Telegraph's blocks.


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