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Ways to Visualize Cost-Benefit

Cost-benefit analysis a way of saying “Yes, this program has great impacts… but it’s super expensive.” You’ll often hear the results of cost-benefit analysis in the news, phrased as “For every dollar we spend on this program, we save $$$.” Clients at the University of Alaska, Anchorage (I HAVE THE BEST CLIENTS!) recently asked me for ways to visualize cost-benefit. Visualize??? We usually don’t *see* cost-benefit, we just hear it stated as a sentence. And sometimes that will be your clearest method of communication. But here are three possible ways I thought of to visualize cost-benefit.


We can turn a simple statement into a visual by adding some very basic icons to each part of the statement, helping us tell our story.

Of course, how you frame your cost savings makes a difference in how people are motivated. So if showing off the benefits doesn’t work, you can always visualize where the savings actually come from. For most social programs, it comes in avoiding payments on things related to crime and justice.


If icons aren’t cutting it for you, you may be able to make stronger connections with your potential audiences through photographs. Again, these mainly serve to support the main sentence. In this screenshot from President Obama’s State of the Union, they used a photo of him in a classroom to illustrate the environment where we need to do the investing.

Quadrant Plot

Both of the previous examples are pretty basic and assume you already have a condensed statement. If you need to weigh out several options, a quadrant plot may be your answer.

The quadrant plot allows you to see how several alternative options shake out. It’s just made from a basic scatterplot in Excel, where I assigned numerical values to every dot. I labeled either end of both poles with textboxes.

What other ways can you effectively visualize cost-benefit? (I asked this on Twitter and got a bunch of responses about the cost-benefit of visualizing and that’s a whole different animal, my friends.) Email me with other emails and I’ll update this post.

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