Sometimes you see a graph that looks great and has all the right intentions, but that misses its mark due the overabundance of information. Today an example.
But before I give you the wrong idea: this week’s graph is a really great one. Informative, fun, telling: you can read all kind of things out of it. The only problem is simply that whoever created it went a step too far trying to prop too much information in it, so the message has got lost in the noise. Worse still, you really need a magnifying glass to read it.
What does the graph tell us? The vertical axis shows so-called adoption rates. The adoption rate is the degree to which US households adopt a certain technology or product, such as a radio, a car or the internet. The axis runs from 10% to 90%, so a product only appears on the graph once it has reached a certain critical mass (>10%).
The horizontal axis is then a time-line from 1900 to 2074. The trend lines indicate for each product when it reaches 10% adoption rate and how long it then takes to rise to 90%. Automobiles for example (orange-brown line) broke the 10% adoption rate in 1915 and then took 75 years to reach an adoption level of 90%. In the case of cars, you also clearly see a reversal during the Great Depression (decline from 1929) and the Second World War (1940), a dip you don’t see reflected at all in radio adoption rates. The radio is shown by the thick purple line, which took just 23 years to rise from 10% in 1925 to 90%.
That I’m able to state these numbers so precisely is thanks to the second half of the graph, the blue bars below the time-line. For each product you see the start date and the time it has taken to rise from 10% to 90%. So the graph’s message is simple: the trends are rising ever more steeply. With the exception of the TV (13 years!), the penetration of new products took much more time in the past than it does now. Ovens, electricity, washing machines, driers, dishwashers: they all took more than 40 years, whereas things like the internet, smartphones or tablets achieved this in less than half the time. Everything just goes faster and faster, and the question is whether we can keep up with it all – especially senior citizens.
So far, so good. But then the creators of this graph went into overdrive. Why exactly does the time-line run to 2074? So the green bars that run horizontally through the graph could be shown. These green bars indicate the life expectancy for each initial year. The life expectancy in 1900, for instance, was 50 years (if I’m reading it correctly), but in 1998 this had risen to 76 years (hence 2074). The underlying message therefore is that whereas in 1900 it took an entire human life before a new product was adopted (50 years), these days we face a radical turnaround in the period it takes to go from birth to puberty. What they then try to show using the horizontal blocks (puberty, retirement?) is not entirely clear to me.
So how about this?
That last bit, however interesting it might be, drags the whole graph down in my opinion. This unnecessarily exaggerates the horizontal axis, with the link between life expectancy and product innovations not really established visually, so that doesn’t really provide any additional value. Missed chance.
This must also have been exactly the same conclusion of the people at BlackRock, as I stumbled across the following graph just this week. Given the source attribution, we’re talking about pretty much the same data, only with the addition of air travel (but with the axis beginning at 0%). Same data, same message, better graph.
Everything’s just getting faster. Can’t wait to see what the next killer-app is going to be.