Emerging Methods

Descriptive Analytics – Methods, Tools and Examples

Descriptive Analytics

Descriptive Analytics


Descriptive analytics focused on describing or summarizing raw data and making it interpretable. This type of analytics provides insight into what has happened in the past. It involves the analysis of historical data to identify patterns, trends, and insights. Descriptive analytics often uses visualization tools to represent the data in a way that is easy to interpret.

Descriptive Analytics in Research

Descriptive analytics plays a crucial role in research, helping investigators understand and describe the data collected in their studies. Here’s how descriptive analytics is typically used in a research setting:

  • Descriptive Statistics: In research, descriptive analytics often takes the form of descriptive statistics. This includes calculating measures of central tendency (like mean, median, and mode), measures of dispersion (like range, variance, and standard deviation), and measures of frequency (like count, percent, and frequency). These calculations help researchers summarize and understand their data.
  • Visualizing Data: Descriptive analytics also involves creating visual representations of data to better understand and communicate research findings. This might involve creating bar graphs, line graphs, pie charts, scatter plots, box plots, and other visualizations.
  • Exploratory Data Analysis: Before conducting any formal statistical tests, researchers often conduct an exploratory data analysis, which is a form of descriptive analytics. This might involve looking at distributions of variables, checking for outliers, and exploring relationships between variables.
  • Initial Findings: Descriptive analytics are often reported in the results section of a research study to provide readers with an overview of the data. For example, a researcher might report average scores, demographic breakdowns, or the percentage of participants who endorsed each response on a survey.
  • Establishing Patterns and Relationships: Descriptive analytics helps in identifying patterns, trends, or relationships in the data, which can guide subsequent analysis or future research. For instance, researchers might look at the correlation between variables as a part of descriptive analytics.

Descriptive Analytics Techniques

Descriptive analytics involves a variety of techniques to summarize, interpret, and visualize historical data. Some commonly used techniques include:

Statistical Analysis

This includes basic statistical methods like mean, median, mode (central tendency), standard deviation, variance (dispersion), correlation, and regression (relationships between variables).

Data Aggregation

It is the process of compiling and summarizing data to obtain a general perspective. It can involve methods like sum, count, average, min, max, etc., often applied to a group of data.

Data Mining

This involves analyzing large volumes of data to discover patterns, trends, and insights. Techniques used in data mining can include clustering (grouping similar data), classification (assigning data into categories), association rules (finding relationships between variables), and anomaly detection (identifying outliers).

Data Visualization

This involves presenting data in a graphical or pictorial format to provide clear and easy understanding of the data patterns, trends, and insights. Common data visualization methods include bar charts, line graphs, pie charts, scatter plots, histograms, and more complex forms like heat maps and interactive dashboards.


This involves organizing data into informational summaries to monitor how different areas of a business are performing. Reports can be generated manually or automatically and can be presented in tables, graphs, or dashboards.

Cross-tabulation (or Pivot Tables)

It involves displaying the relationship between two or more variables in a tabular form. It can provide a deeper understanding of the data by allowing comparisons and revealing patterns and correlations that may not be readily apparent in raw data.

Descriptive Modeling

Some techniques use complex algorithms to interpret data. Examples include decision tree analysis, which provides a graphical representation of decision-making situations, and neural networks, which are used to identify correlations and patterns in large data sets.

Descriptive Analytics Tools

Some common Descriptive Analytics Tools are as follows:

Excel: Microsoft Excel is a widely used tool that can be used for simple descriptive analytics. It has powerful statistical and data visualization capabilities. Pivot tables are a particularly useful feature for summarizing and analyzing large data sets.

Tableau: Tableau is a data visualization tool that is used to represent data in a graphical or pictorial format. It can handle large data sets and allows for real-time data analysis.

Power BI: Power BI, another product from Microsoft, is a business analytics tool that provides interactive visualizations with self-service business intelligence capabilities.

QlikView: QlikView is a data visualization and discovery tool. It allows users to analyze data and use this data to support decision-making.

SAS: SAS is a software suite that can mine, alter, manage and retrieve data from a variety of sources and perform statistical analysis on it.

SPSS: SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences) is a software package used for statistical analysis. It’s widely used in social sciences research but also in other industries.

Google Analytics: For web data, Google Analytics is a popular tool. It allows businesses to analyze in-depth detail about the visitors on their website, providing valuable insights that can help shape the success strategy of a business.

R and Python: Both are programming languages that have robust capabilities for statistical analysis and data visualization. With packages like pandas, matplotlib, seaborn in Python and ggplot2, dplyr in R, these languages are powerful tools for descriptive analytics.

Looker: Looker is a modern data platform that can take data from any database and let you start exploring and visualizing.

When to use Descriptive Analytics

Descriptive analytics forms the base of the data analysis workflow and is typically the first step in understanding your business or organization’s data. Here are some situations when you might use descriptive analytics:

Understanding Past Behavior: Descriptive analytics is essential for understanding what has happened in the past. If you need to understand past sales trends, customer behavior, or operational performance, descriptive analytics is the tool you’d use.

Reporting Key Metrics: Descriptive analytics is used to establish and report key performance indicators (KPIs). It can help in tracking and presenting these KPIs in dashboards or regular reports.

Identifying Patterns and Trends: If you need to identify patterns or trends in your data, descriptive analytics can provide these insights. This might include identifying seasonality in sales data, understanding peak operational times, or spotting trends in customer behavior.

Informing Business Decisions: The insights provided by descriptive analytics can inform business strategy and decision-making. By understanding what has happened in the past, you can make more informed decisions about what steps to take in the future.

Benchmarking Performance: Descriptive analytics can be used to compare current performance against historical data. This can be used for benchmarking and setting performance goals.

Auditing and Regulatory Compliance: In sectors where compliance and auditing are essential, descriptive analytics can provide the necessary data and trends over specific periods.

Initial Data Exploration: When you first acquire a dataset, descriptive analytics is useful to understand the structure of the data, the relationships between variables, and any apparent anomalies or outliers.

Examples of Descriptive Analytics

Examples of Descriptive Analytics are as follows:

Retail Industry: A retail company might use descriptive analytics to analyze sales data from the past year. They could break down sales by month to identify any seasonality trends. For example, they might find that sales increase in November and December due to holiday shopping. They could also break down sales by product to identify which items are the most popular. This analysis could inform their purchasing and stocking decisions for the next year. Additionally, data on customer demographics could be analyzed to understand who their primary customers are, guiding their marketing strategies.

Healthcare Industry: In healthcare, descriptive analytics could be used to analyze patient data over time. For instance, a hospital might analyze data on patient admissions to identify trends in admission rates. They might find that admissions for certain conditions are higher at certain times of the year. This could help them allocate resources more effectively. Also, analyzing patient outcomes data can help identify the most effective treatments or highlight areas where improvement is needed.

Finance Industry: A financial firm might use descriptive analytics to analyze historical market data. They could look at trends in stock prices, trading volume, or economic indicators to inform their investment decisions. For example, analyzing the price-earnings ratios of stocks in a certain sector over time could reveal patterns that suggest whether the sector is currently overvalued or undervalued. Similarly, credit card companies can analyze transaction data to detect any unusual patterns, which could be signs of fraud.

Advantages of Descriptive Analytics

Descriptive analytics plays a vital role in the world of data analysis, providing numerous advantages:

  • Understanding the Past: Descriptive analytics provides an understanding of what has happened in the past, offering valuable context for future decision-making.
  • Data Summarization: Descriptive analytics is used to simplify and summarize complex datasets, which can make the information more understandable and accessible.
  • Identifying Patterns and Trends: With descriptive analytics, organizations can identify patterns, trends, and correlations in their data, which can provide valuable insights.
  • Inform Decision-Making: The insights generated through descriptive analytics can inform strategic decisions and help organizations to react more quickly to events or changes in behavior.
  • Basis for Further Analysis: Descriptive analytics lays the groundwork for further analytical activities. It’s the first necessary step before moving on to more advanced forms of analytics like predictive analytics (forecasting future events) or prescriptive analytics (advising on possible outcomes).
  • Performance Evaluation: It allows organizations to evaluate their performance by comparing current results with past results, enabling them to see where improvements have been made and where further improvements can be targeted.
  • Enhanced Reporting and Dashboards: Through the use of visualization techniques, descriptive analytics can improve the quality of reports and dashboards, making the data more understandable and easier to interpret for stakeholders at all levels of the organization.
  • Immediate Value: Unlike some other types of analytics, descriptive analytics can provide immediate insights, as it doesn’t require complex models or deep analytical capabilities to provide value.

Disadvantages of Descriptive Analytics

While descriptive analytics offers numerous benefits, it also has certain limitations or disadvantages. Here are a few to consider:

  • Limited to Past Data: Descriptive analytics primarily deals with historical data and provides insights about past events. It does not predict future events or trends and can’t help you understand possible future outcomes on its own.
  • Lack of Deep Insights: While descriptive analytics helps in identifying what happened, it does not answer why it happened. For deeper insights, you would need to use diagnostic analytics, which analyzes data to understand the root cause of a particular outcome.
  • Can Be Misleading: If not properly executed, descriptive analytics can sometimes lead to incorrect conclusions. For example, correlation does not imply causation, but descriptive analytics might tempt one to make such an inference.
  • Data Quality Issues: The accuracy and usefulness of descriptive analytics are heavily reliant on the quality of the underlying data. If the data is incomplete, incorrect, or biased, the results of the descriptive analytics will be too.
  • Over-reliance on Descriptive Analytics: Businesses may rely too much on descriptive analytics and not enough on predictive and prescriptive analytics. While understanding past and present data is important, it’s equally vital to forecast future trends and make data-driven decisions based on those predictions.
  • Doesn’t Provide Actionable Insights: Descriptive analytics is used to interpret historical data and identify patterns and trends, but it doesn’t provide recommendations or courses of action. For that, prescriptive analytics is needed.

About the author

Muhammad Hassan

Researcher, Academic Writer, Web developer