About Timelines

by Nov 20, 2018

I’ve been meaning to write about timelines for a while. Everybody knows timelines. If well done, they nicely and quickly explain events in a chronological order in little space. So probably every (evaluation) report should include one… but they hardly ever do. Why? Maybe because the idea is good, but the execution is not always easy.

Since I have started conducting workshops on Data Visualization for evaluators, a timeline is always an exercise I ask people to do. It can be the timeline of a project, timeline of their lives or whatever inspires them. As usual, first in paper, or straight in Powerpoint if they prefer.

Showing and discussing the participants’ attempts, I have learned and reflected about this visual resource. And here is what I’ve learned:

1. The first takeaway: a timeline has to include the time.

It may seem like an obvious things to say, but sometimes there is a sequence of events but time reference is not detailed.

2. But we can face the opposite problem; giving too much (visual) importance to the reference of time, in terms of size, colors, backgrounds, arrows to display the months or years, when in reality, the important thing is what happened during them, not which year it was. In this example, the months should not have bigger font size than the events themselves. And the year is also comsuming too much unnecessary ink:

3. In other ocassions, there is data, there are visuals, but it cannot be considered as data visualization (the visuals are not used to convey the data, but for decoration or reinforcement of the messages in text), like in this example:

There is also the question about the orientation of the timeline.

OK, so horizontal, left-to-right timelines make sense (to me) because that is how we are used to represent time (in my culture). But it becomes more challenging to accommodate overlapping events, and it is also hard if the time period is long (many months or years to be shown as reference). That is why I tend to do them vertically, which a bit is less intuitive but works better.

Here are other leasons I learned, in this ocassion, from some examples I have done in the past.

4. Another problem we can face is trying to put too much data in the timeline. In this example (I did in 2014) I included: the periods the different staff was working for the program (columns on the left), the history of the project, its objectives, its phases, its location, AND demographics of the target group at the bottom right corner! Probably too much.

5. And of course, we can have the opposite situation, like when you leave too many white spaces (like in this example I did in 2013, sorry it’s in French, but you get my point):


However, there are some timelines I have done that I actually still like. It happens when they display information with clarity and simplicity. I particularly like it when several dimensions are conveyed along with the timeline (for example, I have seen people using a line chart that shows the evolution of a key variable over time, while addign other events that explain the variable either below or above the X axis, or both).

In the next example, I presented the timeline of a training course using the profile of a cycyclist race as a metaphore of the difficulty of each week, while adding icons below to depict the programmed activities:


This other example uses the line to convey how critical the situation (ebola crisis outbreak) was getting with time (with the gradual colors). Later I realized I could have merged both lines, as the black one is not providing any extra information and could have been removed and replaced by the colors one:

Of course, my evolving Visual CV has always included different timelines.

And sometimes the timeline does not even need a “line”. In this example, I used calendar symbols to show the dates, while adding geographic data linked to its location:

Summarizing all of them: time should always be present in a timeline, but using minimalistic visual resources for the time references, it should not have too much information but also minimum white spaces, and it’s better when they add extra dimensions at the same time. To do that, we can use background colors, position (for example left and right of the line), icons or other creative solutions.

I hope this is somehow helpful and inspires you to more and better timelines in your documents. Cheers.

New posts coming up:

(published normally every two weeks 🙂 )
  • Mapping levels of evidence
  • Mapping beneficiaries
  • Tensions of Principles-focused evaluations
  • Playing with UNICEF's determinants for Equity Systems
  • My favorite pre-attentive features
  • More ideas for evaluation reports
  • Mapping AEA evaluation competences
  • Iterations with the Periodic Table of Evaluation

And more!

Stay tuned! 🙂

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