Questions to help define a business market

The first step in developing a business strategy is understanding the markets the business/product participates or wants to participate in. While the Aploris founders were working as management consultants at Bain & Company, the initial stages of many projects included a thorough assessment of the client’s market. While time consuming to execute, accurately defining a market provides a powerful platform to help hypothesize the impact of a strategy.

Across a variety of projects, there were always a handful of key questions that were consistently used to define markets:

  • Who are the customers? (age, income, location, education, motivation, pain point)
  • Who are the primary competitors? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
  • How large is the market and how fast is it growing? What are the typical financials?
  • What disruptions can the market expect over the next 3-5 years?

Aploris develops productivity tools for consultants and other PowerPoint users. Our data visualization plug-in for PowerPoint, Aploris Charts (, allows users to build Marimekko charts, which can be used to effectively communicate market segments and size.

Stack-cluster combination bar chart

Stacked and clustered (or grouped) bar charts are standard data visualization tools used for business purposes on a regular basis. Stacked charts are typically used to investigate components in a category that aggregate while cluster charts are typically used to measure components across categories that do not aggregate.

In example 1 we use the stacked bar chart to examine the Economic Enhancer components for the US Global Competitive Index across three time periods (published by the World Economic Forum). Here the scores are aggregated (the World Economic Forum equally averages them) and the stacked bar chart is natural visualization option.

Stacked columns with US Efficiency Enhancer scores

In example 2 we use the cluster or group bar chart to examine how the United States and Germany compare for each component used in the Economic Enhancer metric in a single time period. As the scores are not combined here, a cluster or group bar chart is more appropriate.

Clustered columns with Efficiency Enhancer scores

However, there are times where we would like to be able to combine the charts so that we can compactly examine two sets of data where each set is made up of components that aggregate. In example 3 we use a combination stack-cluster chart to achieve this and effective examine the Economic Enhancer components for both the US and Germany across the 3 time periods.

Stacked and clustered columns combination

Most data visualization tools are unable to naturally create a stacked-cluster combination. Users are forced to develop workarounds that are time consuming and not easily editable. With Aploris, however, users are can use the stacking editor to quickly create a stacked-cluster combination starting from either a regular stacked or cluster bar chart. By right-clicking on the blank spot on the chart users can pull up the stacking editor and simply drag and drop elements to create the desired stacked-cluster combination chart.

100% stacked bar chart

As the name implies, the 100% stacked bar or column chart uses the percent unit for the y-axis. As a result, if you are comparing across multiple groups/bars, each would have the same height taking up the full range of the value axis. The chart is typically used when the author wants to highlight the portion of the total that each segment in a bar comprises. The chart is especially useful when comparing across groups of different sizes or along a timeline. In the example below, we use the 100% stacked bar chart to examine educational attainment in specific US geographies.

100% column chart showing education attainment in the US

Relative to the rest of the US, a higher portion of Silicon Valley and San Francisco residents have a Bachelor, Graduate or Professional degree. The 100% stacked column helps the reader quickly arrive to this conclusion. If we had used a regular stacked chart the American population would have dwarfed Silicon Valley and San Francisco making the key message difficult to obtain. Still the sum displayed on top of each column gives insights into the absolute numbers behind the percentages in the 100% chart.

The 100% stacked bar chart is a standard Aploris offering. With Aploris, the user can switch between regular and 100% stacked bars with the just a few clicks allowing them to quickly test which graph best communicates the intended insight. In addition, Aploris labels can be automatically adjusted to show the absolute value, the percent of the total, or both.

Annotated chart data

Annotated rows and columns are an effective way to add auxiliary information to your PowerPoint charts without overcrowding the visuals and ensuring the insights are still easy to consume for the reader. At some consulting firms and companies annotated rows and columns are referred to as data rows and columns.

An annotated or data row is a horizontal set of numbers, typically under the chart, that line up with the  columns of the chart. In the US food consumption bar chart below, we use the annotated row to show consumption of eggs per capita. Here the annotated row is especially useful as we can represent different units (number/capita) than those shown in the chart (pounds/capita). Instead of the annotated row we could have used a line-bar chart combination but this chart would not have been as easy to read. Furthermore, the annotated row leaves the visual focus on the primary data. The viewer or presenter may only refer to it in case of specific questions and only for certain data points.

100% stacked bar chart showing food consumption in the US

US food consumption 1970’s to 2000

An annotated or data column is a vertical set of numbers, typically to the right of the chart, that line up with the series of the chart. A common use for the annotated column is to show the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for every segment of a stacked bar chart. In the Microsoft revenue example below we use the annotated column to understand which of Microsoft’s businesses is growing the fastest. Adding this data visually to the chart, e.g. with some type of arrows, may easily become more confusing than helpful. Multiple data columns can be helpful for multiple CAGRs, like an actual one for past years and one projected according to the latest business plan.

Stacked column chart with growth arrow showing Microsoft's revenue

Microsoft revenue 2010-2013

Annotated rows and columns are a standard feature in Aploris. You can add multiple annotated rows and columns to a variety of chart types including Mekkos, waterfalls, and line charts.

Typical waterfall chart application

The waterfall chart, also known as the Mario chart, is a simple data visualization comprised of a series of floating bars that look like a waterfall (or floating bricks for Nintendo’s Mario to jump on). The waterfall chart is an effective way to show the impact of a series of sequential drivers on a specific measurement.

In the example below, we use the waterfall chart to understand Microsoft’s income statement from revenue to net income for 3 months ending September 30, 2014 (source Microsoft earnings release). Throughout the waterfall we use “total bars” to provide an intermediary summation (e.g. gross margin, operating margin). We have also manually edited the labels to only show units for the total bars.

Waterfall chart with revenue split

Waterfall chart

The waterfall chart is a standard Aploris offering on our Mac and PC compatible data visualization software. When editing the chart, simply drag the connectors between bars to adjust the flow of the waterfall.