Accounting data visualization software has come a long way since the mid-1980s when the first inklings of it began to appear. At that time, Microsoft Excel was considered a sophisticated program and was used by many accountants to gather and present data (and it has lasting power—many still use this spreadsheet program in their accounting practices today!).1 However, a lot of today’s financial applications have data visualization built in, with a much smoother and more streamlined experience. Now, programs such as Tableau, Microsoft Power BI, Qlik Sense, and Zoho Analytics can transform massive amounts of data into compelling visualization presentations with ease.
In this article, we’ll discuss data visualization for accountants—what it is, how it’s used, and how the different data visualization tools compare.
How is Data Visualization Used in Accounting?
Data visualization is a graphic representation of important data through elements such as graphs, charts, and maps. This way, accountants and other financial professionals can better understand patterns and trends in this information, as well as see data that fall outside of expected patterns.2
In the realm of accounting, data visualization allows auditors to filter, sort, and compare financial and operations data quickly so that they can identify patterns, spot trends, identify high risks, and communicate audit results to their clients. Data visualization can be used for risk assessment, journal entry testing, cutoff testing, and forecasting. It also greatly enhances two-way communication; clients can use a data visualization (DV) dashboard to provide key company metrics to the auditors, which auditors can then use to effectively communicate audit findings and risks as they make their recommendations.3
Accounting data visualization can also be used to examine employee activity, account activity in those that are prone to abuse and fraud, journal entries before the end of periods, and forecasts compared to actual performance. With this, auditors can better understand the client’s operations and guide them in their inquiries, risk assessment, and testing processes.4
For tax professionals, data visualization is necessary for handling large volumes of client data. This is especially true for clients who have income in multiple states, and it can be of great benefit to multinational corporations who use them for monitoring audit and tax practices worldwide.5
Management accountants are the overseers of accounting information, which means that they report a company’s finances and guarantee that reporting. But in today’s business environment, they don’t just keep records and point out compliance issues—they’re seen as strategic business partners who provide value outside of antiquated “number crunching” stereotypes. Accountants must therefore be effective storytellers when sharing the data and their findings so they can convey the larger picture; in other words, what is the data telling us? Data visualization helps to achieve this, with the ability to show relationships between financial and non-financial data.6
Most Common Data Visuals
In advanced data visualization platforms, there are many presentations, styles, and settings that can be used. The most rudimentary graphics that are used in accounting and finance are:
Used to compare variables. Tables are highly structured displays of large amounts of data, but they can be overwhelming for someone interested in overall trends. Microsoft Excel is an example of an adaptable and expandable table.
Bar Chart or Stacked Bar Chart
These charts can compare single or aggregate values. Bar charts divide data into sections that are part of a whole. They organize data to compare the sizes of various components, quite literally with height or width.
Shows the contributions of groups to the whole, displayed in percentages, as slices of the complete pie. Different sizes show majority and minority percentages.
Displays the change in one or more data sets over time. One of the most common is a Time Series Graph, which compares a performance indicator against a target value over a certain period.7,8
When choosing the best visuals for a dashboard presentation, important considerations include user experience, dashboard layout, readability, functional application, labels, the choice of visuals, and color selection. The general rule is to aim for simplicity, clarity, and relevance.6
Comparing & Contrasting Accounting Data Visualization Tools
Here are the top-ranked data visualization applications and platforms, with their best uses and key strengths.
Considered the best data visualization tool for interactive charts, Tableau has been lauded on accounting organization websites such as the Journal of Accountancy and The CPA Journal, both of which provide user guides for CPAs that currently use Microsoft Excel. They explain that Excel specializes in data collection, customized calculations, and scenario analyses, with limited charts and tables for reporting. Tableau, on the other hand, can manipulate and analyze large quantities of data with far greater visualization capabilities. This includes a comprehensive visual interface, intuitive charts, interactive dashboards, and powerful presentation tools, without needing an external program like PowerPoint. With Tableau accounting data visualization software, you can also join and merge data sets.7,8
Other Tableau features include drag-and-drop functionality, storytelling dashboards, and AI-driven statistical modeling. It uses natural language to ask questions and supports greater scale in governance, security, compliance, support, and maintenance.9
Choose the Tableau accounting tool if: your business needs data visualization and analytics that can scale to growing data operations. It is backed by Salesforce and integrates with Slack, but beware that the learning curve can be steep.9
Microsoft Power BI
This visual tool from Microsoft is designed for business intelligence and integrates with many of Microsoft’s other products and cloud services (Excel, Exchange, Azure, etc.). Data security protects user data, and you can use this tool to build engaging dashboards and reports. Accountants that use Excel will find Microsoft Power BI easy to learn.9
Choose Microsoft Power BI if: your organization uses other Microsoft products and services. Note that the desktop version is not available for Macintosh.9
This software platform uses artificial intelligence (AI) to help users leverage data more effectively. Qlik Sense features deep interactivity, drag-and-drop capabilities, fast calculations, automated action triggers, and AI insights. It can connect with and combine data from hundreds of external data sources. This software can be used as SaaS (software as a service) or a hybrid service that works with data on company premises.9
Choose Qlik Sense if: your company needs AI capabilities to scale your data operations.9
With Zoho Analytics, CPAs and other financial professionals can import data from different sources to perform in-depth analysis. With a drag-and-drop interface, you can create dashboards and reports that include different visualization tools. You can also work collaboratively with your team. Publish the presentations through email or embed them on websites. Zoho Analytics integrates with other Zoho applications.9
Choose Zoho Analytics if: you’re already using other Zoho software for easy integration.9
Choose Domo if: your small business wants to use data visualization tools to better understand its data and make informed data-driven decisions.9
Klipfolio’s key strength is its unlimited custom dashboards. You can access and combine data from hundreds of services with no code required. You have access to a built-in data modeler and hundreds of available integrations. Import, edit and analyze data for comprehensive insight. The company offers a free plan, but it does not include downloadable PDF reports.9
Choose Klipfolio if: your organization requires custom dashboards.9
Looker is considered the best choice for visualization options. This powerful tool has a plugin database for many types of visualizations. It also features pre-made analytical blocks that you can use with templates for certain types of data or analyses. There’s a drag-and-drop interface, but it’s not as customizable as other software. 9
Choose Looker if: you need a wide variety of data visualization capabilities to scale your operations.9
Arm Yourself with the Latest Accounting Skills
Although you can take some online training for these tools, the most efficient and in-depth way to learn the latest data visualization software and all of its applications is through an accounting master’s degree program. In the online Master of Science in Accounting program at Yeshiva University, our Accounting Data Visualization and Analysis course will teach you everything you need to know—and then some. Once you graduate, you can lead your team in data visualization reports and presentations with each, as well as being prepared for the Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam.
If you have questions about the Yeshiva University online Master of Science in Accounting program or would like more information, please contact an Admissions Advisor today.
- Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from britannica.com/technology/Microsoft-Excel
- Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from tableau.com/learn/articles/data-visualization
- Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from journalofaccountancy.com/issues/2021/may/make-audits-more-effective-through-data-visualization.html
- Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from ssfllp.com/data-visualization-for-audit-and-accounting/
- Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from cpajournal.com/2018/06/20/data-visualization-software/
- Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from sfmagazine.com/post-entry/december-2020-storytelling-with-data-visualization/
- Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from journalofaccountancy.com/issues/2020/mar/microsoft-excel-vs-tableau.html
- Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from cpajournal.com/2018/06/20/data-visualization-software/
- Retrieved on July 21, 2022, from forbes.com/advisor/business/software/best-data-visualization-tools/