McDonald’s knows how to sell fast food, but they don’t know how to do info viz.

As an info viz junkie I was excited to see McDonald’s using incell bar charts on their food wrappers. Here’s an image off of a cheeseburger wrapper.

incell bar chart

As a Stephen Few fan, however, I know that a key ingredient to high quality info viz is simplicity–it’s got to be easy to understand. To that end, what in the world does the dashed vertical line spanning calories through sodium represent? It looks like it’s set to 33%, but why? Is that some magic number in the world of nutrition? Is 33% “crossing the line” for a single item on their menu? There’s ample room for an explanation of the reference line on the wrapper, but none is provided.

McDonald’s has missed the mark on a few other things on their graphics. The icons to the right of each item are meaningless and the heavy border surrounding each item detracts from the data, but the reference line to me is the real head scratcher.

McDonald’s has a great opportunity to educate their customers about how the calories/sodium/protein/fat/carbs they’re eating right now fit into their overall daily intake of calories/sodium/protein/fat/carbs. I get the sense that the incell bar charts are an attempt to simplify this information, which is great. But their attempt comes up short because they didn’t explain the reference line.

Lastly, has anyone else seen these graphs on their wrappers at McDonald’s? I’m curious if this is a local test. I live near Philadelphia, PA.

BTW, I posted this entry to Stehpen Few’s blog. Here is his response.

Author: John Munoz

3 thoughts on “McDonald’s knows how to sell fast food, but they don’t know how to do info viz.

  1. Mystery solved! In fact, it was solved way back in 2005.

    I dug up a press release from McDonalds from 2005 with no mention of the reference line. Then I found blog post covering this subject which did solve the mystery of the reference line.

    Here’s the quote from the blog (emphasis added):
    “In Europe, this chart will also show the percentage of the Guideline Daily Amount for each nutrient and a dotted line will mark off a third of the daily recommendation, intended to help customers plan for three balanced meals.”

    McDonald’s says they talked with many nutrition experts, academic researchers, and customers about the bar charts. They quote 2 experts saying how clear and easy to understand the graphs are. Too bad they didn’t post a sample to Stephen Few’s discussion board before going to market.

    While putting a reference line at 33% makes sense, it needs to be explained on the packaging so that people know what it means.

    In addition, Chris Collins also blogged about the incell bar charts in Feb. His post is here.

    1. Thanks for the comment Ralph. I think the rhyme and reason about what goes where on these charts may be a mystery for quite some time. Perhaps Steven Few can get some answers at the upcoming JMP conference in Sept where he’s the keynote.

  2. I would also like to know why 11% is posted to the left of the “Carbs” bar, rather than on the right with the rest? Seems like there is enough room.. Now all we have to do is get these incell charts on the water bottles!

    -Ralph Winters

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