I have a time series grid for which there will be sparse data, as changes won't happen often, as shown:

Sparse time series grid

I'm wondering what the best way to display cells when there haven't been any changes is. The '-' could be confused for a null or zero value, but displaying the same number makes months with changes less visually striking. Are there any commonly used solutions to this?


I Should clarify. The '-' here doesn't represent 0. The 'Bar' row contains (5, 5, 6, 6, 6, 6). The user can edit a value, and this table will show what that value was for each month. The issue is that the first 5 represents an actual record in a database, but the user didn't change that value in February, so there is not another record until March. If this isn't a common use case, I'll do as Michael Lai suggested and show data for all cells, but highlight changes somehow.


2 Answers 2


There are several ways to do this...tailor it to the shape of your data

  1. First, don't use the symbol. In finance and business, the symbol is often used to represent the number 0, so this could be confusing to users.

  2. For most data tables, it's important to present numbers consistently. That means if you have a series of 8's, you should display an 8 in every cell.

    • Users may need to look up particular cells in a table, and it's very confusing if two cells with the same value are presented differently (e.g. 8 and -).
  3. To improve the visibility of number series, calm the rest of your table. This will allow the series patterns to 'pop' better without confusing users with other visual elements (banding, or fancy fonts, lines, etc).

Here are some commonly used examples

...which incorporate the principles above.

  • For tables with many identical values and few changes, simply drawing boundaries around the differentials can be effective:


  • For tables where there are sparser identical values, shading is very effective:

    enter image description here

  • For tables where you are visualizing magnitude is important as well as identifying series, heat maps are a common choice:

    enter image description here


It seems to me that your issue seems to be with the visual highlighting of the values in the time series grid (assuming that it is the best solution to the problem). So I can offer some suggestions:

  1. Varying the size of the value displayed, at least so that 0 values are displayed in a much smaller size
  2. Varying the colour of the value displayed, at least so that 0 values are lighter or more opaque
  3. Varying the position of the value displayed, at least so that 0 values are easily distinguishable and can be ignored

Or try a combination of these elements (and anything else you can think of). But I would suggest that if a table is used to display information that mostly doesn't change, perhaps you should provide a different view that is designed for it instead.

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