Free-text comments to “other” responses can be insightful

If respondents check “Other” as a response to a multiple-choice question, the law firm might that sponsored the survey might take the extra step in its report to list or summarize what the respondents filled in. Mostly, however, firms do not provide that additional detail. Still, examples surfaced from three reports, each with a different treatment of “other” comments.

Davies Ward Barometer 2010 [pg. 23] categorizes a number of comments and lists them in bullet fashion. The snippet is partial, because there are three more comments on the next page.

After its pie chart, Norton Rose Infrastructure 2016 [pg. 2] states some of the comments from respondents in the 9% “Other” slice.

DLA Piper RE 2017 [pgs. 4-5] provides what the firm calls “Verbatims”. We show only three of the total of seven. It is possible that the firm edited the comments so that they read smoothly and grammatically.

Research reports strongly favor writing about or plotting the most common responses to multiple-choice questions. They like reporting the highest percentages of answers. But sometimes interesting nuances or new ideas appear as write-in comments. A report that does not disclose permit readers to peek into the “other” comments misses an opportunity to broaden the range of findings.

Variations from convention in bar and column plots

We continue our observations of bar or column plots that vary elements from the conventional standard. Littler Mendelson Employer 2013 [pg. 9] uses a color gradient in the bars. It also includes a superfluous line for the bottom axis, but does a nice job nice fitting the axis labels (rather than angling them or running them alongside or in the bars). The gap between the tallest column and the question seems wide and is a result of the y-axis scale maxing at 100% but the tallest percentage is only 87.

Dykema Gossett MA 2016 [pg. 15] places its plot in a table. Also unusual is carrying the percentages to the hundredths position, which many would criticize as false precision\index{false precision}. We also point out the redundant percentages along the bottom, the unnecessary horizontal line between the bottom two responses and the visual complexity of four different colors (a dark blue title, white in the middle, light blue in the bottom row, and a fourth shade for the bars). The final oddity is the staple over the percentages along the bottom.

Morrison Foerster GCsUp 2017 [pg. 7] designed this bar chart circled as a polar presentation. Each bar starts at noon and extends clockwise in proportion to its percentage. Also worth mentioning is that the firm chose to combine ratings of 8, 9 or 10 as “very important”, which produce the percentages, and explained that consolidation in the grey rectangle below the plot.

A fourth example, from Perkins Coie VirtualReality 2016 [pg. 10], shows a plot with no axis on either side. It also states the long labels of the bars under the bars.

Text that describes plots: three variations from the standard arrangement

The most typical arrangement by which reports describe plots places the explanatory text immediately before the plot. Usually, the text does little more than replay the data in the plot. Here are three examples that diverge from the convention.

Our first example, from Ashurst GreekNPL 2017 [pg. 4], follows the standard pattern. Notably, however, the text also describes in the same paragraph the plot to the right of the one snipped.

Thompson Hine Innovation 2018 [pg. 3] varies the conventional pattern. It starts with a preamble before the plot, but inserts a short discussion to the right of the plot.

We see a third variation in Technology Law GDPR 2017 [pg. 8] . Here the report places some explanatory text above the plot and the remainder immediately below the plot.

234 law-firm research surveys located so far

In late November of 2017 we wrote about the law-firm research surveys we had identified at that time. Since then, we have added many more to the collection.  As of this writing, the set has reached 234 surveys involving 64 law firms. Of those surveys, U.S. law firms accounted for just under half, followed by about half as many by U.K. firms and a scattering of firms from sources: Canada (18), Israel, more than one country, Vereins, or firms that straddle the U.S. and the U.K (“USUK” in the plot that follows). The plot shows the numbers and distribution for the firms.

At this point, we know of 30 firms that have dipped their toe into the water of research surveys only one time. As to the promiscuous surveyors, six firms have done so in double digits (more than 10 surveys), with a single firm (CMS) accounting for 20 surveys.

The plot that follows shows an increasing number of research surveys each year since approximately 2012. Not that all research surveys by law firms have been identified, far from it. Nevertheless, 2017 has so far surfaced at least 55 surveys, and 2018 has generated at least 15 in the first three months, a pace that would exceed the 2017 total.


Bar plots and some variations from conventional treatments

By far the most common genre of plot, bar (or column plots) probably outnumber all other types by a factor of three. Most of these plots are workmanlike and unmemorable. Some of them, however, utilize techniques that designers of plots should consider for their arsenal.

We start with Davies Ward Barometer 2007 [pg. 29] because of its conventional treatment of the bar plot. The labels for each bar are on the left axis, the bars are sorted from high to low (top to bottom), and the percentages are given at the right end of each bar. Some of the elements of this plot that are not standard, however, include the black outline of each bar, the tick marks at the base that look like staples around the label, and the choice to cut off responses under 4%.

The next plot, from Freshfields Bruckhaus Crisis 2013 [pg. 10], centers each segmented bar at zero, a neutral position. It also uses colors for the segments and embedded percentages to convey the data collected by the survey. Note, too, that the plot has no y-axis line.

KL Gates GCDisruption 2017 [pg. 6] chose to represent negative values, decreasing percentages, as a different color bar (purple), located in the lower right, with a space between it and the positive values. This technique is confusing. It would have been better to present the negatives on the left side of zero, as the preceding Freshfields Bruckhaus plot does.

DLA Piper RE 2017 [pg. 8] introduces several techniques. First, the designer places the labels of the bars within the bars, sometimes even stretching them outside to the right of the bar. Second, the firm summarizes the key point of the plot in the first bullet on the right and adds more context in the second bullet. Third, the explanation in the second bullet has a footnote regarding its source. Fourth, unlike most bar plots that put the percentage or number at the end of the bar, this one stacks them flush right.

Single columns in the grids of report pages

A grid is a useful concept for understanding and describing report layouts. Picture pages as a pattern of cells (sometimes called modules in a grid arrangement and you can see how the number of columns defines its vertical structure. The simplest grid has a single column, and we found several examples of that layout among the law-firm research surveys. Here are three.

KL Gates GCDisruption 2017 [pg. 15] relies on a block grid: no columns (or perhaps one could call it single-column). The effect on many readers may be density that demands laborious slogging through a mass of text.  Another effect may be that of a word processing document, where columns rarely show up. Wide margins on one or both sides can alleviate the heaviness of the layout, but this report has normal margins.

Perkins Coie VirtualReality 2016 [pg. 15] also has no columns. The snippet shows a plot and part of the text that follows it. Together they fill the single column, although there is a wide margin on the left side, inhabited by the greater-than symbol, that reduces the blockiness.

Even when firms rely on a single-column grid, they may not rigidly adhere to that pattern. Some reports vary the number of columns from page to page. For example, Mayer Brown Privacy 2015 [pg. 2] has a single column on text-only pages, but two columns when there are plots (and the final page about the firm has two columns).

Maps with data, but that are not choropleths

Like line plots, map plots have limited utility. They can convey both data and location where the latter has relevance. The examples shown below illustrate placement of data on maps, but they are not choropleths, which are plots that color geographic regions by a gradient to convey some range. For instance, a choropleth of the United States might color each state according to its GDP per state, say with a very light green for the lowest states on that measure and a dark green for the highest states.

Foley Lardner Telemedicine 2017 [pg. 12] has included a simple map of the United States, where it applies only two colors to the states (indicating two-party consent or one-party consent). A list could have conveyed the same information as it is not apparent that geographic location has any bearing on the consent laws. This snippet includes the lower border line of the plot (called a ruler) and part of an icon in the upper right-hand portion of the page.

Another map shows up in DLA Piper Debt 2015 [pg. 15]. This one is actually an area plot with proportional circles superimposed on select countries of Europe. The same data could have been represented as a bar chart, but the map is more interesting to the eye.

DLA Piper RE 2017 [pg. 14] provides data on its respondent’s geographic profiles by means of an exploded-out map of the United States. The two jurisdictions that are not domestic regions, “International” and “Other,” tread water in the lower left.

Line plots convey changes in values over time

Line plots clearly and immediately emphasize changes in some value over time. While a plotted symbol on its own, perhaps a circle or a rectangle, could represent each time period’s value, lines between them highlight for the reader variations from period to period. Several line plots show up in the law-firm research surveys and each of them elaborates on some element of the basic pattern.

Dykema Gossett MA 2016 [pg. 6] swabs down exceedingly thick lines (as if to make up for the paucity of 12 data points). The round symbols are visible, and overall the plot has nice labeling, unobtrusive colors, and bold labels. The year-over-year differences cannot be missed.

The Freshfields Bruckhaus Crisis 2013 [pg. 6] line plot offers much less separation between its four lines than does Dykema Gossett between its three lines. Individual values for periods, therefore, are harder to pick out. Unusually, the x-axis does not stand for years, months, or quarters, but for different intervals of time increasing to the right.

We might replace the repetitive “Within” of the x-axis labels with a less obtrusive “<” or, better, omit it entirely and we would snip the tick marks of the vertical lines. We are also struck by the amount of white space below the title and amid the legend.

A complex, data-rich line plot is found in DLA Piper RE 2017 [pg. 6]. It covers 13 years, but more dramatically it plots data against three y axes! Readers could struggle to make out that the green line represents Moody’s/RCA, the blue line represents the U.S. Consumer Confidence Index (CCI), while the black line represents the findings of DLA Piper on its measurement of confidence. Adding to the cognitive load, an odd blue coloring bathes the plot and seeps into the top of the plot itself.

Donut plots are a variant of polar (pie) charts

Advocates of plot graphics disparage pie charts. They point out that readers not only struggle to interpret relative proportions in pies but can readily do so with bar plots. Yet people like pie charts. One blogger suspects these are the top reasons why:

1. Pie charts are obviously charts. It’s easy to see a pie chart and immediately realize it’s attempting to summarize some kind of data.

2. Pie charts lend themselves to pastry-based humor.

3. Pie charts are colorful by necessity. Many charts can be monochromatic but a pie chart without chromatically-unique slices is just a circle.

Consider three examples from law-firm research surveys. Each one addresses the weakness of pie charts by labeling the segments (slices) with precise percentages. Morrison Foerster GCDisruption 2017 [pg. 14] cooks up a donut chart, a pie chart open in the middle. The colors of the labels match the corresponding segments, but notice that the spider lines from the labels meet at the end of the segment rather than in the middle, which is more standard.

Unusually, this plot places the question asked on the survey at its bottom, and even more unusually encloses it in a rectangle with a grey background.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Whistleblow 2017 [pg. 11] presents so little data that the donut chart is superfluous. But note the clip-board icon, the summary of the data in text to the right, and the border surrounding the plot and text.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Crisis 2013 [pg. 8] challenges a reader. Radiating, colored lines of the same size mark the segments of this donut chart. The longest line in the segment touches the circle that displays the segment’s label.

White space on pages, top and sides

As expressed by the designer Massimo Vignelli in The Vignelli Canon [pg. 92], “[I]n typography the white space is more important than the black of the type. … [O]ne should not underestimate the importance of white space to better define the hierarchy of every component. White space not only separates the different parts of the message but helps to position the message in the context of the page. Tight margins create a tension between text, images and the edges of the page. Wider margins reduce the tension and bring a level of serenity to the page. Tight type setting transforms words into lines just as loose type settings transform words into dots. Decreasing or increasing the letter spacing (kearning) confers very distinctive character and expression to the words. … The relationship between the size of type and the space around it is one of the most delicate and precious elements of a composition.”

The white space at the top of the pages of Allen Overy Innovative 2012 [pg. 18], stretching from the top of the page to the top of the first header or text (the grey outline is outside the page), covers about one-fifth of the entire page. The header and page number occupies a small portion of that expanse. This openness at the top emphasizes the content weighted at the bottom, as compared to the other way around which might seem unbalanced.

Clifford Chance Crossborder 2012 [pg. 9] also spreads a swathe of space at the top, and it accounts for approximately one-third of the entire page. A blue ruler bisects the midpoint of the white space and a header sits top right.

Squire Sanders Manufacturing 2014 [pg. 5] often and strikingly devotes the right column of the three-column grid to white space. This layout of space concentrates the eye on the important material on the left and rests the eyes on the right.