What are box plots

Guide: Box Plots

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Author: Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is an experienced continuous improvement manager with a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and a Bachelor's degree in Business Management. With more than ten years of experience applying his skills across various industries, Daniel specializes in optimizing processes and improving efficiency. His approach combines practical experience with a deep understanding of business fundamentals to drive meaningful change.

Guide: Box Plots

Box plots, or box-and-whisker plots, stand as fundamental tools in statistics and data visualization, offering a succinct yet rich depiction of a dataset’s distribution. These plots elegantly encapsulate key data points – the minimum, first quartile, median, third quartile, and maximum – providing a clear view of the data’s spread, central tendency, skewness, and potential outliers.

This exploration delves into the nuances of box plots, from their construction and interpretation to their diverse applications and inherent limitations. Essential in statistical analysis, box plots serve as a versatile instrument for initial data examination, comparison, and hypothesis formation.

What are Box Plots?

Box plots, commonly referred to as box-and-whisker plots, are an essential tool in both statistics and data visualization. Their design is elegantly simple yet packed with valuable information about a dataset’s distribution. This detailed explanation will delve into the intricacies of box plots, focusing particularly on their structure and the insights they offer.

At its core, a box plot is a graphical representation of data that shows the distribution through their quartiles, highlighting the median, the spread, potential skewness, and outliers. The plot is based on a five-number summary, which includes the following key points:

  1. Minimum: This is the lowest value in the data set, excluding any outliers. In a box plot, it is typically represented by the end of the lower whisker.

  2. First Quartile (Q1): Also known as the lower quartile, it is the median of the lower half of the data set. This means that 25% of the data points in the dataset are less than or equal to Q1.

  3. Median: This is the middle value when the data set is ordered from lowest to highest. The median divides the dataset into two equal halves and is a measure of central tendency.

  4. Third Quartile (Q3): This is the upper quartile, representing the median of the upper half of the data set. It indicates that 75% of the data are less than or equal to Q3.

  5. Maximum: This is the highest value in the data set, excluding outliers, and is marked by the end of the upper whisker in the plot.Example Box Plot2

Insights Provided by Box Plots

Box plots are revered for their ability to convey several statistical insights succinctly:

  • Spread of Data: The IQR, depicted by the width of the box, shows the range within which the central half of the data lies. A wider box implies greater variability in the data.

  • Skewness: The plot can indicate the skewness of the data. If the median is closer to Q1 or Q3, or if one whisker is significantly longer than the other, it suggests that the data is skewed either to the left or right.

  • Outliers: By clearly showing data points that fall outside the typical range, box plots help in identifying anomalies in the dataset.

In summary, a box plot is a versatile tool that offers a quick yet comprehensive view of the distribution characteristics of a dataset. By understanding and interpreting box plots, one can gain crucial insights into the nature of the data at hand, which is a fundamental step in any statistical analysis or data visualization endeavour.

How to Create a Box Plot in Excel: A Step-by-Step Guide

Creating a box plot in Excel is a straightforward process that allows you to visually represent the distribution of your data. This step-by-step guide will walk you through the process of creating a box plot (also known as a box-and-whisker plot) using Microsoft Excel.

If you do not have data to pratice along with download our Demo Box Plot data.

Step 1: Prepare Your Data

  1. Organize Your Data: Arrange your data in a single column. For comparative box plots, use multiple columns for different data sets or groups.

Step 2: Insert a Box Plot Chart

    1. Select Your Data: Click and drag to select the data you want to include in your box plot.
    2. Insert Chart: Go to the Insert tab on the Excel ribbon. Click on the Insert Statistic Chart icon and select Box and Whisker.

Step 3: Customize the Box Plot

  1. Chart Elements: Add titles, labels, or gridlines by clicking on the Chart Elements button (the plus icon next to the chart). Here, you can add a chart title, axis titles, and more.
  2. Chart Styles: Change the visual style or color scheme of your box plot by selecting from the Chart Styles options.
  3. Format Axes: Right-click on the axis you want to format. You can adjust scales, font, and number formats.

BoxPlots-Step 3

Step 4: Adjust Box Plot Settings

  1. Whisker Options: Right-click on any of the boxes in the plot and choose Format Data Series. Under Series Options, you can adjust the whisker length (default is 1.5 times the interquartile range).
  2. Show Mean Markers: In the Format Data Series pane, you can choose to show the mean value markers if needed.

Step 5: Analyze the Box Plot

  1. Interpret the Plot: Observe the median, range, interquartile range, and outliers (if any) in your data.
  2. Comparative Analysis: If you have multiple data sets, compare their distributions, medians, and variability.

Tips and Considerations

  • Data Accuracy: Ensure your data is accurate and clean before creating the box plot.
  • Outliers: Pay attention to any outliers identified by the plot for further investigation.
  • Excel Versions: The steps may slightly vary depending on your version of Excel.

By following these steps, you can effectively create a box plot in Excel, providing a visual representation of your data’s distribution, which is essential for analysis and reporting.

Interpreting Box Plots

Understanding Spread and Skewness

  • Spread: The spread of the data is visually represented in two ways in a box plot. First, the width of the box (the IQR) shows the spread of the middle 50% of the data. Second, the length of the whiskers indicates the overall spread of the data. A wider box or longer whiskers suggest greater variability in the data.

  • Skewness: A box plot can give an indication of the skewness of the data. If the median line within the box is closer to Q1 or Q3, it suggests skewness (left or right respectively). Additionally, if the whiskers are of unequal lengths, it also suggests that the data might be skewed.

Identifying Outliers

Outliers: These are points that lie beyond the whiskers. They are critical in data analysis as they can indicate exceptional cases, errors in data collection, or natural but rare variations in the data. Analyzing outliers is crucial for a comprehensive understanding of the dataset.

Applications of Box Plots

Comparative Analysis

  • Visual Comparison: Box plots are exceptionally effective for comparing distributions across different categories or groups. When multiple box plots are aligned side-by-side, they offer a clear visual comparison. This setup makes it easy to compare central tendencies (medians), variability (interquartile ranges), and the presence and nature of outliers across different groups or categories.

  • Multiple Categories: In many fields such as medicine, business, or social sciences, comparing data across multiple groups is essential. For instance, a box plot can compare exam scores across different classrooms or patient recovery times across different treatment groups.

Statistical Insights

  • Preliminary Assessment: Box plots are often used in the preliminary stages of data analysis to gain an overview of the data’s distribution. This is crucial for deciding on the appropriate statistical tests to apply, as different tests require different assumptions about the data distribution (normal distribution, variance, etc.).

  • Identifying Anomalies: They are particularly useful in spotting outliers which might influence the results of statistical tests or might need special attention in further analyses.

Data Exploration

Quick Data Assessment: In exploratory data analysis, box plots provide a fast way to understand the spread, central tendency, and outliers in a dataset. This can guide further detailed analysis and help in formulating hypotheses or spotting unusual trends.

Limitations of Box Plots

Despite their usefulness, box plots are not without their limitations:

  • Modality: Box plots do not display the modality of the data. This means that they cannot show if the data is unimodal (one peak), bimodal (two peaks), or multimodal (more than two peaks). This is a significant limitation when the modality of the distribution is important for the analysis.

  • Hidden Details: Certain details of the distribution can be hidden in a box plot. For example, they do not show how the data within the quartiles is distributed. All distributions with the same quartiles and medians will have identical box plots, even if the data is distributed differently within these ranges.

  • Over-simplification: Sometimes, the simplicity of box plots can be a drawback. They might oversimplify complex data distributions, leading to the potential oversight of important characteristics of the data.


In conclusion, box plots are invaluable in data analysis, adept at offering a rapid yet comprehensive view of a dataset’s distribution. They excel in comparative analysis, allow for preliminary statistical insights, and are integral to exploratory data analysis.

However, their simplicity can also be a limitation, as they do not reveal the modality of data and may obscure detailed distribution characteristics. Despite these limitations, box plots remain a staple in data visualization, providing a foundational tool for understanding and interpreting the nature of data in various fields. Their ability to condense complex data into an easily interpretable format makes them an indispensable part of any data analyst’s toolkit.


A: A box plot, also known as a box-and-whisker plot, is a graphical representation of data that displays the distribution through five key statistics: the minimum, first quartile (Q1), median, third quartile (Q3), and maximum. It is used to depict the spread, central tendency, and potential outliers in a dataset.

A: The whiskers in a box plot extend from the first quartile (Q1) and third quartile (Q3) to the minimum and maximum values in the dataset, typically within 1.5 times the interquartile range (IQR). They show the range of most of the data, with points outside the whiskers often considered outliers. The length of the whiskers can indicate the variability or spread of the data.

A: Yes, box plots can indicate skewness in data. If the median is not centered within the box or if the whiskers are of unequal lengths, it suggests that the data is skewed. A median closer to the bottom of the box with a longer upper whisker indicates right skewness, while the opposite suggests left skewness.

A: Box plots have limitations such as not showing the modality of data (whether it is unimodal, bimodal, or multimodal) and potentially oversimplifying complex data distributions. They do not depict how data is distributed within the quartiles and can sometimes hide important details, like clustering of data points.

A: In a box plot, outliers are typically represented as individual points that lie beyond the whiskers. These are points that fall outside the range of 1.5 times the interquartile range (IQR) from the quartiles. Outliers are significant as they may indicate unusual variations, errors in data collection, or specific characteristics of the dataset that warrant further investigation.


Picture of Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft

Daniel Croft is a seasoned continuous improvement manager with a Black Belt in Lean Six Sigma. With over 10 years of real-world application experience across diverse sectors, Daniel has a passion for optimizing processes and fostering a culture of efficiency. He's not just a practitioner but also an avid learner, constantly seeking to expand his knowledge. Outside of his professional life, Daniel has a keen Investing, statistics and knowledge-sharing, which led him to create the website www.learnleansigma.com, a platform dedicated to Lean Six Sigma and process improvement insights.

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