Text Tables

Understanding and Using Text Tables

Text tables, otherwise known as matrices, pivot tables, or crosstabs, present numerical data in rows and columns. These tables support adding up and reviewing specific values within a data set. They also organize values and percentages so users can find the numbers they need.

These tables are best used as a supplement to other visualizations due to their difficulty in communicating insight. However, there are certain ways to make the tables themselves visualizations when we need to communicate insight with end users. Steve Wexler, co-author of The Big Book of Dashboards, states, "I like highlight tables and often use them as a 'visualization gateway drug' to move people from crosstabs to more insightful ways of looking at their data."

How To Read Text Tables

Text tables, although difficult to glean insight from quickly, are simple to read. Especially if the user is familiar with the report. Follow the rows and columns to find a specific value for the category of interest.

The viewer should be able to look at the header row/s to find the field or fields used to partition the values in the view. If you are creating that type of table but also need people to understand it immediately, you can use preattentive attributes. A preattentive attribute is visual information that our brains can process almost immediately. Adding the preattentive attribute of color turns a basic text table into a highlight table.

Taking the selected measure and putting it on color will assign a color to each cell in the table. The use of color or shading can highlight values of key importance.

These tables can present measurement of objects, color, use, number of objects present, dates, percentages, and so on. Additionally, you can add subtotals and grand totals to the rows or columns of your text or highlight tables. These tables expand horizontally and vertically as needed. You can add to them over time, used to supplement other visualizations, or stand on their own.

What Type of Analysis Does a Text Table Support?

Text tables are a good choice when identification of individual specific values is a need. Or when the visual used does not support displaying individual values and needs more information to be effective. Text tables can be one of the easiest chart types to build as all that you need is one numerical field and one categorical field.

For analysis that needs quick understanding but also still needs specific details, text tables with color (highlight tables) can be an effective solution.

More complex charts, or even charts that measure parts of a whole, like a pie chart or a tree map, work best when paired with a text table to give specifics. The values are still available, but the impact of the trends or percentages is visible.

If you have simple numbers or lists of information, like manufacturing parts, ingredients, due dates, course syllabi, your own personal finances, or even sports analysis, a text table is a good option to use.

Last, text tables can also be good for presenting simple statistical data where you need specific information.

When and How to Use Text Tables for Visual Analysis

As mentioned above, you can use text tables as visualizations when showing a chart that might not include specific numbers. Additionally, if you have several charts, a table can help viewers find the specific values they need for research. Last, using simple tables that display KPIs in large format can be an effective way to draw attention to a few critical values.

Although text tables can be an effective supporting visualization, they don’t tell compelling stories on their own. There is too much data contained in a text table than your short-term memory can manage. Think of a game of “Memory” where people attempt remembering the locations of specific tiles to find matches. Text tables are similar as they depend on people remembering large amounts of information to understand the table.

Don’t use a text table if:

  • You're trying to display a large amount of data in a small space.
  • You’re trying to show a key relationship between two or more categories.
  • Your data is geographical and would fit better on a map.
  • You only have few marks to show in your data.
  • There are too many marks displayed and it is easy to get lost in the rows and columns.
  • There aren’t numerical measurements in your data.

Great Examples of Text Tables

In this text table, the rows and columns look at the profits per year and quarter. The boxes highlighted in red show important figures.

  • There is a Grand Total row at the bottom that adds all the profits per item up.
  • The legend at the top in the title shows why some boxes have color and others don't.

Bad Examples of Text Tables and Alternatives


This text table that looks at profits per year and quarter offers no visual cues, only simple numbers. There are no vertical axes dividing the numbers apart, making it more confusing for the end-user. It is very difficult to extrapolate insight from this table.


A better alternative for a table like this one is a Highlight Table. This Highlight Table shows what products were profitable and what products were not over the course of two years. Red marks unprofitable items, and blue marks profitable ones.