Three Easy Tricks You Probably Didn’t Know About Pie Charts in Excel

Leave a comment

You’ve probably used Excel a lot, especially when cleaning up your data and making little bar and pie charts here and there when you need to.  If you need a quick pie chart, and you don’t spend any time trying to make it look nice, you’ll probably end up with something like this:

HEY WAKE UP!  Don’t let that boring pie chart put you to sleep.  Here are three simple tricks to make it look much more interesting.  It’s as easy as pie. 

(Yes. I went there.)

Tip # 1. Give it a little dimension. 
Excel has six different pie graph options for you to choose from. Four are 2-D and two are 3-D.  There is nothing wrong with a 2-dimensional pie graph, especially if you have many categories that could get lost in a 3-dimensional graph.  Use good judgement when choosing which pie chart is right for your data. If you have fewer categories that are better represented in a 3-D pie graph, go for it.

Tip # 2. Rotate your pie so that the smaller categories are seen. 

For some reason, when you make a pie chart on Excel, Excel tends to stick the smaller categories toward the back and bring the big piece to the front.  I suppose Excel’s logic is that you would want to see the larger value up front.  But what if the smaller values are what you’re really trying to show?

This can be fixed.  Right-click the pie chart and choose “Format Data Series.”  Under “Series Options” in the “Angle of the First Slice” section, slide the rotation notch to the right (somewhere between 90 and 100 should be fine, but you can play around with this). Viola.  Your small value slices have gotten upgraded to front and center.

Tip # 3. Make one piece of the pie explode

Who doesn’t want to see a slice of pie explode?  Not only is this great clown comedy, it’s a good way make one category or value of your pie stand out from the rest.  Earlier when you chose the type of pie graph you wanted, you could choose one that already has all the slices exploded.  Here is how you can make just one slice explode:

When you click on the pie graph, you’ll see that little “handles” appear on the edges. When you click on just one slice of the pie, the same thing happens.  Drag that piece of the pie out…and bam. Pie slice explosion.

Next time you need to make a pie graph on Excel, consider some ways to  make it look more interesting.  Your audience will appreciate it.

By the way, that first pie graph shown above (the gray, bland one) is intended for giggles, but believe it or not, that is an actual color scheme by Excel.  Please, please, please, stay away from that option.  While you’re at it, stay away from single-color schemes, where pieces of the pie are different shades of green or orange, for example.  To make each of your pieces stand out, use different colors.  And stick with solid colors.  Patterns can get distracting.

SPSS Tutorial Videos on YouTube

Leave a comment

Need some last-last-minute help with SPSS?

California State University, Los Angeles, has a great YouTube channel that has several videos on how to use SPSS.  There are videos on how to download data files, define variables, entering data, and how to do various analyses, like crosstabs, t-tests, regressions, and more.

Below is an example of one of their videos. This one is a basic intro to SPSS:


This channel is also really handy if you need a refresher on how to use SPSS.  Most of the videos are between 4 and 5 minutes long, so they’re also really good if you need to remember how to do that one thing that slipped your mind. We have a more recent version of SPSS in the lab, but the steps to do these analyses are the same! Ask a consultant for help if you need additional assistance.

Respecting Human Dignity – the IRB

Leave a comment

So you’ve written a research proposal and have the nod of approval from an advising professor. But if your research includes interacting with humans, you have one very important step that must happen before entering the field. Approval from AU’s Institutional Review Board (IRB). They need to know your plans for respecting the dignity of selected human subjects.

Not all research projects will require IRB. If you plan to pour over documents for a case study or stare at spreadsheets of quantitative data someone else gathered, you can skip this step. But if you hope to interview people, host a focus group or immerse yourself in a culture for ethnography, you will most definitely be interacting – and even intervening – in the lives of others.

So why this red tape?

Unfortunately in the past, as some researchers pursued truth and knowledge at the cost of human dignity, humans as mere “subjects” were harmed physically or psychologically. Learning from mistakes, universities (and their graduates) uphold a strict code of ethical conduct. As a researcher, you will need to account for the effects of your actions on your subjects. Your behavior should preserve the rights and integrity of the humans involved in your research project.

To begin

Go to the AU IRB web site where you can find all sorts of resources! And forms. If you’re curious about what projects NEED the IRB process, you can read more. But if you’re pretty sure you need it, follow the link for the REQUIRED human subjects training. It will take you approximately 30 minutes and will set the stage for the necessity of this process.

Once you’re certified, begin with the Determination Form, just to test if you really need IRB review and approval. Notice the form is especially concerned with privacy and confidentiality. There are also special categories of subjects that are defined as particularly vulnerable: children, prisoners, cognitively impaired, senior citizens, etc. Does your project include especially vulnerable persons? If so, you will need to take extra care (and paperwork). Once you submit this form, you’ll receive an email with instructions likely requesting your full IRB application or request for exemption. Read through the titles of supplemental forms, just in case your project needs one.

As you imagine going out in the field, how do you expect to be received? Will you stick out like a sore thumb, an obvious outsider? If so, people will ask and word will spread that you are there to do research. It is ethical to ask research participants for consent before directly interacting and collecting data. Use the IRB consent checklist and template to cover all your bases. The process of customizing the template into your own consent form will help you think through all possible risks.

The IRB process should not be dreaded – nor underestimated – but it does take time and foresight. I found the process helpful as it forced me to articulate all possible risks to my future subjects, plan for confidentiality and solidify my data collection, storage and analysis process months in advance. I found the office timely and my contact person responsive, yet I would advise you to give at least 4-6 weeks for the entire process. On the other side of this process, you’ll feel more confident and prepared to interact with people in the field.

Quick Way to Find Variables on SPSS


When you’re using SPSS, have you had those moments when you’re endlessly looking for a certain variable, but in a list of 100+ you never seem to do it quickly?  Do not waste time scrolling through your giant database; instead, take this tip from us:

First, remember that SPSS stores your variables with a name (= a code for the variable, which should only be a word) and a label (= an explanation of what your variable is in a whole sentence). Second, whenever you want to do an operation in SPSS (i.e. get descriptive statistics for a variable) the window for this will show a list of the variables that by default presents the labels.  If you point the cursor over this list (anywhere on this list of variables is fine) you can right click the list and choose that you want to see the “names” of these variables.  If you right click again you can indicate that you want to see an “alphabetical sort” of the variables.

 And done!  We suggest looking at variable names because is just a word and is likely that you would know this, plus the alphabetical sorting tends to make more sense with the variable name rather than the code.

Please leave a comment if you think this was useful, and ask a consultant if you have a question using SPSS!

Tips for Data Visualization (Part 2)

Leave a comment

And now, Part Two of the series “Tips for Data Visualization”:

1. Use the Rule of Thirds

What is the rule of thirds?  Imagine taking an image and splitting it into thirds. With this grid in mind, this “rule” identifies the important parts of the image that you should consider placing your points of interest as you frame your image. Take the example above. Which one looks better to you?

Of course you don’t need to pull out a ruler and start measuring your images to make sure they follow this principle, but try seeing the graphic in a way that is elegant in its data-infused beauty.

2. Be consistent when scaling images

If a 1-inch-tall coffee mug represents how much coffee the SSRL staff consumes in one day, how many cups does a picture of a 6-inch coffee mug represent? How can you tell?  If you create your scales with a graphic editor, be careful about being consistent with your images. If possible, use a computer program to help you make consistent measurements.

3.  When using intensity maps – keep the scale coloring from lightest to darkest.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but with the vast range of colors that are available out there, you might be tempted to make your intensity map look like a bowl of Skittles than an image that has real information on it.  Darker colors usually mean higher values, but you can work around this if you define your scale to your audience. Just keep the hues consistent.

4.  Use Maps and Statistics in an Effective Manner

Take a look at the map above.  You can tell the general area where there is great population density, but can you tell which city?  The bubble for Phoenix is swallowing the entire state of Utah here.  Your maps shouldn’t leave your audience guessing.

5. If it looks bad to you, it will probably look bad to someone else too.

As Prof. Jim Lee likes to say, “Use your crap detector!”  Share your graphical information with someone else.  If they take too long to figure out what it means, something is probably wrong.  Make your graphic look good, but understandable.

Jazz up your data with Gapminder

Leave a comment

One of the most common data visualization tools for research projects is the standard graph. Graphs can be visually instructive when explaining how one indicator relates to another, but let’s face it – we’ve all seen a million graphs before, and they can be extremely dull. Moreover, if your aim is to compare multiple countries, all those lines on the same graph can be terribly confusing!

Enter Gapminder, at

Gapminder allows you to select the development indicators between which you want to establish a relationship and then plots them on a graph with circles that represent individual countries. These bubbles are color-coded according to their respective regions, and their sizes indicate the relative size of the population of that country. If you hover your mouse over a specific bubble, a label with that country’s name will appear.

To create your graph, simply click on where the label is and select the indicators that you want to see, and the graph appears! If you want to isolate countries from a specific region, click on that region on the map in the upper right hand corner, and all of the bubbles for countries not in that region will disappear from the graph. To isolate one country in particular, check the box next to it on the list below the map.

One other nifty feature of Gapminder is that you can see how countries have changed over time. To see how this works, move the slider on the timeline back to whatever year you’d like to start from and click “PLAY”. The bubbles will move around the graph, indicating how the relationship between the two indicators you selected has changed regionally or globally over the years.

This is an incredibly effective tool for making your data visualization more interesting and engaging, as well as for showing changes over time! If you’re confused about its use or want to make sure you’re applying this tool effectively, you can stop by the lab in Hurst 202/203 for further pointers!

Creating a Chart in Google Docs

Leave a comment

Step away from Excel for a few minutes and marvel at the chart building possibilities available on Google Docs.

If you have a Google account (and if you’re an AU student, of course you do), log into your Google account and get to Google Docs. You know that you can upload text files and spreadsheets there. Click on one of the spreadsheets you have (and if you don’t have one uploaded, you can take a spreadsheet you’ve been working on in Excel and upload it to Google Docs).  Up at the top is a little button that looks like a red and blue bar graph. That is where the magic happens.

Click on the “Chart button” and begin building your chart. You can choose from line, bar, pie, trends, map, and other graph options.

On your spreadsheet, select the data you want to include in your chart. Or, you can do that under the “Start” tab once you’ve opened the Chart box.  Google Docs will recommend a chart for your first, but if you decide that is not what you want, you can move on to the “Charts” tab and select another option.  (Google Docs will even let you know if a certain chart is not possible with the data you provided). You’ll be able to preview the chart once you’ve made a selection. Create the title and other labels for your chart in the the “Customize” tab.

When you’re happy with the chart you built, click on “Insert” and it will appear on top of your spreadsheet.

It’s that easy!

For more instructions, read it from Google themselves.

Older Entries

%d bloggers like this: