Business Research

A Practical Guide for Undergraduate and Postgraduate Students

by Jill Collis and Roger Hussey

Checklists and guidelines

The checklists and guidelines below provide handy, quick-reference information as you work through your research project.

Choosing an academic institution

  • Are you provided with detailed information on the research programme at the outset and the rules and regulations that apply?
  • Are you offered an interview with the programme director or a potential supervisor to explore the match between your research interests and the research activities and abilities of the supervisor?
  • Is there a research training programme or, at the very least, a series of seminars on research methods, to provide you with knowledge and opportunities to meet other researchers?
  • Is there a culture of conference attendance by supervisors and research students that will give you the opportunity to present papers and discuss your research with others?
  • Are the library services, photocopying, printing, computer and other facilities adequate?
  • Will you have access to common rooms where you can meet fellow researchers?
  • Will you have access to facilities at evenings and weekends?
  • If the institution is fairly large, is there a regular newsletter to help you keep in touch?
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Choosing a supervisor

  • Does the supervisor have knowledge and interest in your research topic?
  • Is the supervisor sympathetic to your proposed methodology?
  • Is the supervisor an experienced researcher?
  • Has the supervisor got a record of successful supervisions?
  • Has the supervisor got a good publication record?
  • Has the supervisor got enough time to take on your supervision as well as managing his/her other work?
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Ethical research

  • Will the research process harm participants or those about whom information is gathered (indirect participants)?
  • Are the findings of this research likely to cause harm to others not involved in the research?
  • Are you violating accepted research practice in conducting the research and data analysis, and drawing conclusions?
  • Are you violating community standards of conduct?
Source: Kervin (1992, p. 38).
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Reading the literature

  • What was the purpose of the study and how does it differ from other studies and my own research?
  • How was the research conducted and how does that differ from other studies and my own research?
  • What were the findings and how do they differ from other studies and my own research?
  • What were the limitations and weaknesses of the study?
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Referencing under the Harvard system

  • Have I acknowledged other people’s work, ideas and all sources of secondary data?
  • Have I enclosed quotations in quotation marks and cited the author(s), date and page number in the original source?
  • Have I acknowledged the source of all tables, diagrams and other items reproduced, including the number of the page in the original source?
  • Have I applied the rules consistently?
  • Have I included full bibliographic details for every source cited in my list of references?
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Literature review

  • Have you cited the most important experts in your field?
  • Have you referred to major research studies which have made a contribution to our knowledge?
  • Have you referred to articles in the most important academic journals in your area?
  • Have you identified any major government or other institutional study in your research field?
  • Have you identified studies that use the same paradigms and methodologies you propose?
  • Have you identified serious criticisms of any of the studies conducted?
  • Have you avoided plagiarism?
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Assessing a research topic

  • Is the topic researchable, given time, resources, and availability of data?
  • Is there a personal interest in the topic in order to sustain attention?
  • Will the results from the study be of interest to others […]?
  • Is the topic likely to be publishable in a scholarly journal (or attractive to a [research] … committee?
  • Does the study (a) fill a void, (b) replicate, (c) extend, or (d) develop new ideas in the scholarly literature?
  • Will the project contribute to career goals?
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Project proposal

  • Do you have, or can you acquire, the knowledge and skills to do the research?
  • Do you have the resources, such as computer facilities, travelling expenses?
  • Do you have access to the research data you need? If you need the co-operation of certain organizations or people, have you obtained their consent?
  • Does your title aptly describe your study?
  • Have you described the purpose and importance of your research?
  • Have you written a critical preliminary review of the literature and identified your main research question(s)?
  • Have you described and justified your methodology?
  • Is your timetable realistic?
  • Have you avoided plagiarism and checked that your work is correctly referenced?
  • Have you used the spelling and grammar check?
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Eliminating questions

  • Does the question measure some aspect of one of the research questions?
  • Does the question provide information needed in conjunction with some other variable? (If NO to both 1 and 2, drop the question; if YES to one or both, retain)
  • Will most respondents understand the question and in the same way? (If NO, revise or drop; if YES, retain)
  • Will most respondents have the information to answer it? (If NO, drop; if YES, retain)
  • Will most respondents be willing to answer it? (If NO, drop; if YES, retain)
  • Is other information needed to analyse this question? (If NO, retain; if YES, retain only if the other information is available or can be obtained)
  • Should this question be asked of all respondents or only a subset? (If ALL, retain; if ONLY A SUBSET, retain only if the subset is identifiable beforehand or through questions in the interview)
​Source: Adapted from Czaja and Blair (1996, p. 61).
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Conducting quantitative data analysis

  • Are you confident that your research design was sound?
  • Have you been systematic and rigorous in the collection of your data?
  • Is your identification of variables adequate?
  • Are your measurements of the variables reliable?
  • Is the analysis suitable for the measurement scale (nominal, ordinal, interval or ratio)?
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Reducing interviewer bias

  • Read each question exactly as worded in the questionnaire.
  • Read each question slowly, using the same intonation and emphasis.
  • Ask the questions in the same order.
  • Ask every question that applies.
  • Use the same response cards (if required as part of the design).
  • Record exactly what the respondent says.
  • Do not answer the question for the respondent.
  • Show interest by paying attention when the respondent is answering, but do not show approval or disapproval.
  • Make sure you have understood each answer and that the answer is adequate.
Source: Adapted from Brenner (1985).
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Systematic literature search

  1. Draw up a list of sources (journal databases, subject-related websites, bibliographic catalogues and other lists your business librarian suggests).
  2. Define the scope of the research.
  3. Determine key words you can use for searching, including alternative spellings and synonyms.
  4. Search each source, keeping a record of your progress (for example: Journal of Drinking Habits: Searched 1990–2009 using keywords ...) and full details of relevant publications so that you can read them later and, if relevant, reference them in your work.
  5. Only collect literature that is relevant to your research in terms of the topic, theory and methodology. In the academic literature, select articles from high-quality journals that review the literature, describe the methods used, discuss the results and draw conclusions.
  6. Start with the most recent publications and work back in time, using the references at the end of relevant publications to lead you to previous studies.
  7. When you start to recognize the references cited in other works, you are nearing the end of your first search.
  8. To keep up to date with the literature, continue searching the literature throughout the project.
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Generating a network of primary citations

  1. From the literature you have collected, select all the articles that are published in what you consider are the top two or three journals among those represented. From these articles, select those that have been published in the most recent year. These are the ones you will analyse first.
  2. Examine each article to identify which item from the literature is the most important to the author’s study. This is the primary citation for that article. Do the same for the other articles published that year.
  3. Place all the primary citations for the most recent year as nodes in an oval text box at the bottom of your diagram and use Author (Date) to label them.
  4. Repeat this process at five-yearly intervals to add new nodes to the diagram that reflect the year of publication. Draw links between nodes to identify the literary antecedents (similar to a family tree). Identify the node that lies at the core of the literature (the one with the most ‘descendants’) by putting it in a rectangular text box. This allows you to illustrate the theoretical framework that unites the literature.
  5. The final step is to determine the motivation for each article, and the methodological rationale that links them.
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Writing a literature review

  1. Select only material that is relevant to the topic, industry, methodology and so on
  2. Identify themes and group the material
  3. Define key terms and draw out the important features
  4. Compare results and methods of previous studies
  5. Be critical and demonstrate relevance to your research
  6. Set the context for your study (a deductive approach suggests you will identify a theoretical framework and hypotheses)
  7. Identify gaps or deficiencies in the literature that your study will address
  8. Conclude with your research question(s)
  9. Acknowledge other people’s contribution to knowledge using the Harvard system of referencing.
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Ten ways to get your proposal turned down

  1. Don’t follow the directions or guidelines given for your kind of proposal. Omit information that is asked for. Ignore word limits.
  2. Ensure the title has little relationship to the stated objectives; and that neither title nor objectives link to the proposed methods or techniques.
  3. Produce woolly, ill-defined objectives.
  4. Have the statement of the central problem or research focus vague, or obscure it by other discussion.
  5. Leave the design and methodology implicit; let them guess.
  6. Have some mundane task, routine consultancy or poorly conceptualized data trawl masquerade as a research project.
  7. Be unrealistic in what can be achieved with the time and resources you have available.
  8. Be either very brief, or preferably, long-winded and repetitive in your proposal. Rely on weight rather than quality.
  9. Make it clear what the findings of your research are going to be, and demonstrate how your ideological stance makes this inevitable.
  10. Don’t worry about a theoretical or conceptual framework for your research. You want to do a down-toearth study so you can forget all that fancy stuff.
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Repertory grid technique

  1. Determine the focus of the grid.
  2. Determine the elements in advance or agree them with each interviewee (approximately 5–10).
  3. Write each element on a separate card.
  4. Decide whether to use triads or dyads.
  5. Select the appropriate number of cards at random.
  6. Ask the interviewee to provide a word or phrase that describes each similarity and difference between the pairs of elements.
  7. Use these words or phrases as the constructs on the grid.
  8. Explain the rating scale to the interviewee (for example 5 = high, 1 = low)
  9. Ask the interviewee to indicate the number closest to his or her view and explain the reason.
  10. Construct a grid for each interviewee based on his or her responses and scores.
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Focus group

  1. Prepare a list of issues you want to cover.
  2. Invite a group of people with sufficient experiences in common on the research problem to meet at a neutral location.
  3. Create a relaxed atmosphere when introducing the group members and explaining the purpose of the focus group and how it will be conducted.
  4. Start the session with a broad, open question. This can be displayed on an overhead projector or flip chart. If possible, give visual explanations or examples.
  5. Allow the group to discuss the issue(s) as you introduce them without intervention from you, except to ensure that all members have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion and all the issues are covered.
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General analytical procedure for qualitative data

  1. Convert any rough field notes into a written record that you and your supervisors will still be able to understand later on. You may wish to add your own thoughts and reflections. This will be the start of your tentative analysis. You should distinguish your interpretation and speculations from your factual field notes.
  2. Ensure that any material you have collected from interviews, observations or original documents is properly referenced. The reference should indicate who was involved, the date and time, the context, the circumstances leading to the data collection and the possible implications for the research. You may find it useful to record your references on a pro-forma summary sheet, which you can store in an indexed system for ease of retrieval.
  3. Start coding the data as soon as possible. This will involve allocating a specific code to each variable, concept or theme that you wish to identify. The code can be allocated to a specific word or to a phrase. The use of exemplars is helpful when applying the code and explaining its significance in your dissertation or thesis. The code will allow you to store, retrieve and reorganize data in a variety of ways. You will find it easier if you start with as many codes as you feel necessary and later collapse them into a smaller number.
  4. You can then start grouping the codes into small categories according to patterns or themes which emerge. This is not a mechanical task, but will require considerable reflection. If you are not using a theoretical framework, do not attempt to impose categories, but allow them to emerge from the data. Compare new items of data as they are collected with your existing codes and categories, and modify them as required.
  5. At various stages, write summaries of your findings at that point. The discipline of putting your thoughts on paper will help with your analysis and highlight any deficiencies to be remedied.
  6. Use your summaries to construct generalizations that you can use to confront existing theories or to construct a new theory.
  7. Continue until you are satisfied that the generalizations are sufficiently robust to stand the analysis of existing theories or the construction of a new theory.
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Constructing data displays

  1. Consider what appropriate displays can be used to bring together qualitative data so that conclusions can be drawn.
  2. Be inventive in using displays; there are no limits on the types of diagrams and illustrations which can be used.
  3. Constructing displays is an iterative process where you construct an initial display and draw some tentative conclusions which will be modified, or even overturned, as new items of data become available and new displays are constructed.
  4. Be systematic in your approach to constructing displays and analysing data, but be aware that by becoming more formal in your approach there are the dangers of becoming narrow, obsessive or blind to new meaning which might emerge from the data.
  5. Use mixed models in your analysis and draw from different methodologies and approaches in your analysis.
  6. Remain self-aware of the entire research process and use supportive friends to act as critical voices on matters and issues you are taking for granted.
  7. Communicate what you learn with colleagues who are interested in qualitative studies. In particular share your analytical experiences. Source: Miles and Huberman (1994, p. 310).
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Quasi-judicial method

  1. State the initial problem and issues as clearly as possible.
  2. Collect background information to provide a context in terms of which the problems and issues are to be understood.
  3. Put forward prima facie explanations of the problems and issues.
  4. Use these explanations to guide the search for additional evidence. If they do not fit the available evidence, work out alternative explanations.
  5. Continue the search for sufficient evidence to eliminate as many of the suggested explanations as possible, in the hope that one will account for all of the available evidence and be contradicted by none of it. Evidence may be direct or indirect, but must be admissible, relevant and obtained from competent and credible sources.
  6. Closely examine the sources of evidence, as well as the evidence itself. All items should be checked for consistency and accuracy. This is analogous to legal cross-examination in the case of personal testimony.
  7. Enquire critically into the internal coherence, logic and external validity of the network of argument claiming to settle the issues and solve the problems.
  8. Select the most likely interpretation compatible with the evidence.
  9. Formulating the acceptable explanation usually carries an implication for action which has to be worked out.
  10. Prepare an account in the form of a report. It should contribute to ‘case law’ by virtue of the general principles employed in explaining the specific case.
Source: Robson (1993, p. 376).
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Cognitive mapping

  1. Attempt to construct your map on one sheet of A4 so that links can be made.
  2. Start mapping about two-thirds of the way up the paper in the middle and try to keep concepts in small rectangles of text rather than as continuous lines.
  3. Separate the sentences into phrases.
  4. Build up a hierarchy.
  5. Watch out for goals as the discussion unfolds and for potential strategic issues.
  6. Hold on to opposite poles for additional clarification.
  7. Add meaning to concepts by placing them in the imperative form; include actors and actions if possible.
  8. Retain ownership by not abbreviating words and phrases used by the problem owner.
  9. Identify the option and outcome within each pair of concepts.
  10. Ensure that a generic concept is superordinate to specific items that contribute to it.
  11. Code the first pole as that which the problem owner sees as the primary idea.
  12. Tidying up can provide a more complete understanding of the problem.
Source: Adapted from Ackermann, Eden and Cropper (1990).
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Designing questions

  1. Provide a context by briefly explaining the purpose of the research
  2. Only ask questions that are needed for the analysis
  3. Keep each question as short and as simple as possible
  4. Only ask one question at a time
  5. Include questions that serve as cross-checks on answers to other questions
  6. Avoid jargon, ambiguity and negative questions
  7. Avoid leading questions and value-laden questions that suggest a ‘correct’ answer
  8. Avoid calculations and memory tests
  9. Avoid questions that could cause offence or embarrassment
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Analysing quantitative data

  1. Quantify answers to open questions.
  2. Identify each case and enter the data into your software program.
  3. Name the variables and the coding labels, and identify the level of measurement.
  4. If recoding is required, recode into a different variable, thus keeping the original intact.
  5. For most business research, accept the SPSS default significance level of 0.05.
  6. Decide whether your hypotheses are one-tailed or two-tailed.
  7. Identify the dependent variable and the independent variable(s) (not applicable when testing for correlation).
  8. Determine whether parametric or non-parametric tests are appropriate.
  9. Decide whether you have independent or dependent samples.
  10. Explore, describe and analyse the data using appropriate statistical methods to address your research questions.
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Presentation of text: Writing style

  1. Text should be written as lucidly and clearly as possible.
  2. The language and style should be appropriate for your paradigm and your intended audience.
  3. Sentences should be kept short; preferably no longer than 20 words.
  4. A new paragraph should be started for each new idea.

Presentation of text: Grammar and semantics

  1. The grammar, punctuation and spelling (especially of names) should be checked. Computerized spelling and grammar checkers should be used judiciously.
  2. Precise words, rather than general or abstract words, should be used.
  3. The meaning of words and phrases should be checked for correct usage.
  4. Jargon should be avoided and a glossary provided for any technical terms.
  5. The document should be carefully proofread for typographical mistakes, repetition, clichés, colloquialism, errors and omissions.
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Report design: Structure

  1. The information should be presented in a logical sequence. Each section should have a logical progression and support a central message. Each item should lead to the next.
  2. A standard hierarchy of headings and subheadings should be adopted to structure the report.
  3. The chapters, main sections and subsections should be numbered sequentially. Thus Section 3.5.5 refers to the fifth subsection in section 5 of Chapter
  4. Three is normally considered to be the maximum number of subdivisions. Therefore it is usual to divide the report into chapters which contain a number of main sections and, in turn, these are divided into subsections. As a general rule, paragraphs should not be numbered.
  5. Titles and headings used for tables, graphs and other illustrations should also be standardized and numbered sequentially. The first digit should refer to the chapter number and the second digit to the table/chart number. Thus, Table 3.5 refers to the fifth table in Chapter 3.

Report design: Format

  1. There should be consistency of style in terms of margins, page numbers, paragraphs, bulleted lists, numbered lists, fonts used in hierarchical headings and so on.
  2. A reasonable sized font, say 10 or 12 point, should be used to ensure legibility.
  3. The layout should aid communication.
  4. Colour or space should be used to attract the reader’s attention to key information.
  5. Use dark colours for text and figures since light colours are less legible.
  6. Do not distract the reader by using more than four or five colours in any diagrams or charts you generate. Avoid the combination of red and green for adjacent data, which is a problem for readers who are colour-deficient.

Report design: Presentational forms

  1. Tables, graphs and other illustrations should relate to the text so that the information is supported by the different representations.
  2. To maintain the interest of the reader, a variety of presentations should be used, as dictated by the type of data (for example interval or continuous) and the purpose (for example for comparison).
  3. It is usual to divide the research report into numbered chapters which contain several numbered main sections, which in turn can be divided into subsections if required. For example section 3.5.2 refers to the second subsection in section 5 of Chapter 3. Three is normally considered to be the maximum number of divisions (chapter, main section and subsection).
  4. It is not usual to number the paragraphs in a dissertation or thesis. However, this may be required if you are designing a report for a non-academic sponsor, such as a government department or professional body. In such cases, we advise that you seek guidance on your sponsor’s preferred style.
  5. Titles and headings used for tables, graphs and other illustrations should also be standardized and numbered sequentially. The first digit should refer to the chapter number and the second digit to the table/figure number. Thus, Table 3.5 refers to the fifth table in Chapter 3. It is helpful to the reader if the title is shown above or below the table or figure and the source of the data is shown below.
  6. The pages should be numbered sequentially. It is usual to show the page number in the footer.

Report design: Style and layout

  1. Throughout the document there should be consistency of style in terms of page size, layout, headings, fonts, colour, justification and so on.
  2. A reasonable sized font, say 10 or 12 point, should be used to ensure legibility.
  3. The design and layout should be attractive; colour and/or white space should be used to complement the layout.
  4. If available, colour should be used to attract the reader’s attention to key information.
  5. Different colours may be useful for highlighting key variables throughout a report.
  6. Avoid the combination of red and green for adjacent data, which we have already mentioned is a problem for people who are colour-deficient.
  7. Do not distract the reader by using more than four or five colours (except for illustrations and photographs).
  8. Use dark colours for text and figures, since light colours are less legible.
  9. Tables, graphs and other illustrations should relate to the text so that the information is supported by the different representations.
  10. To maintain the interest of the reader, a variety of presentations should be used, as appropriate to level of measurement and purpose (for example comparison).
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Main sections in the methodology chapter of a positivist study

  1. Description of the sampling method, the sampling frame, size of the population, number of responses, and the response rate compared with previous studies.
  2. Explanation of the appropriateness of the methodology in the context of your paradigm.
  3. Description of the methods used to collect data for the literature review and the research data. Discussion of their strengths and weaknesses in the context of alternatives to justify your choice. If the research data were collected over a long period of time, include a timetable showing when specific activities took place and any critical events.
  4. Description of the methods used to analyse the literature and the research data. Discussion of their strengths and weaknesses in the context of alternatives to justify your choice.
  5. Description of the variables in the analysis, level of measurement, unit of measurement and codes used.
  6. Discussion of the limitations in the research design, making reference to generalizability, reliability and validity.
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Main sections in the methodology chapter of an interpretive study

  1. Description of the sampling method, focusing on how cases were located and selected.
  2. Explanation of the appropriateness of the methodology in the context of your paradigm. As there are many variations within an interpretive approach, quote a number of definitions of your methodology, explain the main features and refer to studies that have used it.
  3. Description of the methods used to collect data for the literature review and the research data. Discussion of their strengths and weaknesses in the context of alternatives to justify your choice. If the research data were collected over a long period of time, include a timetable showing when specific activities took place and any critical events.
  4. Description of the methods used to analyse the literature and the research data. Keep this general and do not start discussing your findings.
  5. Discussion of the limitations in the research design, making reference to generalizability, reliability and validity.
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Constructing tables: General advice

  1. Use a tabular presentation for an educated audience.
  2. Use columns rather than rows to compare figures. If comparison is the main purpose of the presentation, consider using a comparative bar chart.
  3. Restrict the size to 20 numbers or less. This can be done by dividing a large table into two or more small tables. Consider a graph for large data sets.
  4. Minimize the number of words used, but spell words out rather than using abbreviations or codes.
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Constructing tables: structure and layout

  1. Place the table number and title at the top to allow the reader to identify and understand the purpose of the presentation before proceeding to the body of the table.
  2. Use different fonts and styles to distinguish the table title, headings and subheadings.
  3. In pairs or sequences of tables, use identical labels for common headings and labels.
  4. Indent items under a group variable label.
  5. Set columns compactly so that the eye does not have to travel too far between labels and each column of figures.
  6. Add grid lines to facilitate the reading of columns and rows.

Constructing tables: The quantitative data

  1. Round numbers to two significant digits, unless precision of data is important.
  2. Where possible, order columns/rows by size of numbers. Place any miscellaneous variable last, regardless of size.
  3. Provide column/row averages or totals where appropriate.
  4. Draw attention to key figures with colour, shading or bold typeface.
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Constructing charts and graphs: general advice

  1. Do not mix different types of data (for example percentage and absolute figures) on the same chart, but draw up separate charts.
  2. Items should only be compared on the same chart if they have the same basic data structure and a clear relationship.
  3. Label the axes.
  4. Label data elements directly and include the unit of measurement. If there is insufficient room to label the elements directly, provide a key.
  5. Minimize the number of words used but, if possible, spell words out, rather than using abbreviations or codes. The majority of ink used to produce the graph should present the quantitative data. Delete anything which does not present fresh information, since this represents a barrier to communication.

Constructing charts and graphs: structure and layout

  1. Place the chart number and title at the top to allow the reader to identify and understand the purpose of the presentation before proceeding to the body of the graph.
  2. Use different fonts and styles to distinguish the chart title, axes and data element labels.
  3. Select an unobtrusive background.

Constructing charts and graphs: the quantitative data

  1. Select colours for the data elements with high contrast from adjacent items.
  2. Avoid the combination of red and green on adjacent elements, which is one of the commonest problems for people who are colour-deficient.
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