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Falling in Love with Waterfall Charts

The waterfall chart is perhaps one of the lesser-understood, underrated charts in the visualization space. Many have seen it, but only a few use it in their reports regularly. Even amongst those who use it, many have not tried anything more than the simple waterfall (or, the variance waterfall) chart. It is imperative for report designers, data analysts, visualization enthusiasts, and students of data & analytics to understand the full potential of the waterfall. This compilation is an effort to streamline your journey into the world of waterfall and its possibilities. Note that you can replicate all of these visualizations in Power BI using Inforiver Charts, without having to write any scripting on DAX.

1. Simple Waterfall Chart

The simplest form of a waterfall chart allows you to show individual contributions (green) along with the total (blue).  The x-axis can hold category or time dimensions. A waterfall is better than a column chart in some ways:
  1. A column chart does not show the total, which the waterfall does
  2. With the waterfall, you can infer that revenue in the first half of the year (Q1+Q2) is around 600M. In a way, the waterfall chart tends to provide a cumulative sense of the data.
Imagine that the total column in blue is in fact a stacked column consisting of four quarters, except that the four quarters have been represented on the left in a stepped manner. This, in essence, is the simple waterfall.  
Simple waterfall

2. Variance Waterfall

Using the variance waterfall, you can highlight Year-over-Year variances for each quarter to explain which quarters contributed to most of the change from the prior year to the current year.  

It is evident that Q1, Q2, and Q3 (green) have contributed the most to the increase in 2022 revenue, while Q4 (red) witnessed a drop. 

Variance waterfall chart

3. Combination Waterfall

This type of waterfall chart highlights deviations between 2022 Actuals & 2022 Plan by quarter. 2021 Actuals (in orange) is also provided as a reference (without quarterly breakdown). Overall we have three measures shown in this chart, with two of them broken down by quarters.

Inforiver allows up to 4 measures - one pair for granular variance calculations, and another two just for reference. 

Note that this chart shows quarterly contributions as grouped bars (touching the x-axis) and the variances separately above.  

One drawback in this type of chart is that the variance values may get much smaller. You do have the option to zoom in on variances as shown in the previous chart (#2), but you will not be able to see absolute quarter values at the bottom.


Combination waterfall chart

4. Stacked Waterfall

A waterfall chart can be built with stacked columns. In this example, sales from each quarter (and the total) is broken down into two categories (Beverages and Water).

stacked waterfall chart

5. Breakdown Waterfall

The breakdown waterfall takes a normal column chart (e.g., sales by quarter), and explains the differences through variances. 

In this case, unlike the previous charts, we have opted for a non-time dimension (geography). We are showing which geography contributes the most to the increase or decrease in sales between any two quarters. 

You can also think of this as a waterfall chart with several interim totals (Q2 and Q3) and a final total (Q4). 

Unlike a typical variance chart, we cannot show positive variances in green and negative variances in red. It is rather better to color each geography consistently across quarters.


breakdown waterfall chart

6. Stacked Breakdown Waterfall

This is a combination of stacked (#4) and breakdown (#5) waterfall chart.  

It shows sales from each quarter, and all values including interim and final totals are further broken down into two categories (beverages and water).

stacked breakdown waterfall

7. Measure-Only Waterfall

One of the most unusual waterfall chart types as it has neither time nor category dimensions. This chart is made entirely of measures.   

You can also recreate this chart using a single dimension and a single measure. The dimension would capture all category values that you see in the x-axis and use a single measure to deliver to capture their respective values. But such a chart would show green for positive values and red for negative values. This would look remarkably similar to a variance waterfall chart (#2).


Measure only waterfall

8. Forecasting in Waterfall

We are in the month of September. We have actual sales data (highlighted in black) from Jan to Aug. We only have sales projections (bars with stripes) from Sep to Dec. The projected sales for the entire year is shown in a stacked column at the end.  

You can also observe actual variances (for elapsed period from Jan to Aug), and projected variances (for Sep to Dec) in red and green.

forecasting waterfall

9. Vertical Waterfall

Waterfall charts are great to visualize P&L. In fact, you can even give an idea of calculations performed. In this case, values are typically added, except where a minus (-) sign precedes the name on the Y axis. Interim totals such as Sales Revenue, Operating Result etc are bolded and preceded with a "=" sign.  

The last two columns track absolute and percentage variances. The former is in the shape of a bar, while the latter is usually represented by a pin/lollipop

vertical waterfall

10. Simple Small Multiple Waterfall Chart

Did you know that you need not create multiple waterfall charts for multiple regions or geographies?  

Visualize sales by product category across two separate regions in a single visual using a simple small multiple.

simple small multiple waterfall chart

11. Measure-based Small Multiple

The previous chart (#10) used a category-based small multiple. In other words, each geography was represented in a separate chart.  

In this case, we are using a measure-based small multiple waterfall chart.  

We are visualizing Sales (blue) in the first chart and Quantity (green) in the second chart.

Measure based small multiple

12. Advanced Small Multiple

Each small multiple waterfall tile can have an integrated KPI Summary card. This KPI card will summarize the variance between actual (AC) and prior year (PY) values for each quarter, in absolute and % terms.  

Q1 netted 264.4M, which is a 24.9M increase during the same quarter prior year. This is an effective increase of 10.4%.

Advanced small multiple

13. A Multi-Dimensional Small Multiple

Waterfall charts become more insightful when used in small multiples with multiple dimensions.  

You have the first category, Region, in the x-axis, in each of the 9 charts.  

You have the product group in each column (Technology, Furniture & Office Supplies). 

The segment is listed in each row (Consumer, Corporate and Home Office).

A multi-dimensional small multiple

14. Measure-based Multi-Dimensional Small Multiple

Combining examples #11 and #13, you can also deliver multi-dimensional measure-based small multiple. The chart shows sales (blue) in the first row and quantity (green) in the second row. The columns depict the three categories (technology, furniture, and office supplies). 

Measure based small multiple - multi dimensional

15. Small Multiples - An Example With 50 States

Small multiples are not just restricted to 3x3 or 4x4 matrices.  

You can visualise as many rows and columns as you want. Here is an example containing 50 states and their respective KPI summaries. But such a cluttered view must be used very carefully as it sometimes occupies too much space for the insights it delivers.

small multiple with 50 state example

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