Sunburst diagram vs. Sankey diagram: What are the differences?

November 29, 2021 By: Adam Stewart

Sunburst diagram. Sankey diagram.

These terms might be unfamiliar, but both Sankey and Sunburst diagrams are found everywhere in describing user journeys, outcomes, correlations, and more. I have seen these charts in analyst reports helping to discern hundreds of categories of technical market categorization, and I have even seen them used to diagram electoral outcomes and chances in politics!

So what exactly are Sunburst and Sankey diagrams? 

Sunburst and Sankey diagrams are both interactive charts. They offer fast, graphical representations of the path a customer takes to reach an outcome. 

The outcome might be desired, like checking out, or something less preferred, such as getting upset with a confusing page, exiting the site altogether, or perhaps going to a competitor’s page with their business.

Sunburst and Sankey diagrams display information differently. Some situations are a better fit for Sankey diagrams, others for Sunburst. In the end, however, choosing between Sunburst and Sankey diagrams usually comes down to personal preference.

For the purposes of this discussion, we will focus on a user experience representation in both diagrams. 

What is a Sankey diagram?

Sankey diagrams are laid out like a more traditional flow chart, displayed either horizontally or vertically. They have a point of origin. All customers have a common starting point, such as the application home page. Each Sankey diagram has endings at one of several outcomes, including checkout, early visit disruption, and help pages.  

What are the advantages of using a Sankey diagram?

Sankey diagrams allow you to quickly hover over the destinations and see the various journeys users might take to reach an outcome. The diagram gives you a quick look into the user experience, which makes it easier to uncover potentially unwanted paths.

sankey diagram vs. sunburst diagram

Sankey diagram within Quantum Metric

In addition, Sankey diagrams are a great way to visualize customer journeys as a roadmap, from start to finish, since you can quickly visualize how small adjustments impact the user journey and outcome. They also allow for instances where results may criss-cross in various patterns, since a single point of origin can lead to several different outcomes in the user journey.

What are the disadvantages of using a Sankey diagram?

However, Sankey diagrams do have some key limitations, which might impact when you want to use them. 

  • They are limited in the number of journey steps they can show without miniscule text and graphics or without scrolling, neither of which are ideal.
  • Because Sankey diagrams map out the customer experience with a flow of lines along the journey, the charts can get cluttered and hard to read, especially when there are multiple destinations from a node. 

Sure, there are drawbacks to this approach. But in general, Sankey diagrams are a great way to quickly see, test and experiment with user journeys. This makes Sankey a great option for creating user experience visualizations. 

What is a Sunburst diagram?

Sunburst diagrams, on the other hand, are laid out in a radial, cascading pattern. The source of a journey or experience is located in the middle. The various steps of the customer journey are found in concentric, segmentmented circles. Finally, the outermost circle represents the end outcomes of the user experience. 

What are the advantages of using a Sunburst diagram?

Like their Sankey counterparts, Sunburst diagrams are responsive and allow you to quickly hover over a path and visualize the user journey. You can get insights into various steps along the customer journey, which helps you understand where to invest time and resources in order to maximize customer value. 


Sunburst diagram

Sunburst diagram within Quantum Metric

Sunburst diagrams are exceptional at visualizing massive amounts of user journey data in a concise chart. Because they are radial, you can instantly visualize dozens of final-step outcomes without needing to scroll, zoom, or move to a bigger screen. They make it easy to move around the chart quickly, as well as analyze different levels of detail, such as conversion rate, number of user sessions at a specific stage, or even business value tied to those users.

What are the disadvantages of using Sunburst diagrams?

Like Sankey diagrams, Sunburst diagrams also have some disadvantages as well. 

  • If initial decisions and actions by users can end up with similar outcomes, Sunburst diagrams can have limitations in depicting too much “criss-cross” behavior.  
  • Sunburst diagrams are more compact, but they don’t do as good of a job representing flow for analysts who like more graphical representations of a journey.  
  • Although they collect more outcomes and more data in a concise chart, more detailed Sunburst diagrams often zoom in automatically, which can make it hard to see the whole journey in one depiction. 

Visualizing user journeys in Quantum Metric.

Deciding between when to use a Sunburst or a Sankey diagram for mapping a user experience can be challenging. You should make your decision based on the user journeys that are unique to your business, as well as personal preference. A data interpretation problem happens when you are stuck using one or the other, especially when it’s not the ideal map you want to use. 

When you use Quantum Metric, you have the flexibility to model your data using either Sankey or Sunburst diagrams.  

With Quantum Metric Journeys, you can easily see the many paths that customers take – or not – to reach desired outcomes, including registration, checkout, or transactions. This makes it easier to identify pitfalls, such as dead-end pages leading to frustrated customers and lost revenue.

Oftentimes, Quantum Metric’s session replay technology is the fastest way to get to the bottom of a user’s problem. But sometimes teams move faster when they can visualize hiccups in the user journey with a Sankey or Sunburst chart. The flexibility to analyze data in the chart that works best for you is critical for identifying problems and addressing them quickly.  

Learn more about how Quantum Metric can help you visualize customer journeys by requesting a live demo, or by visiting the Quantum Metric Journeys webpage.  

If you are a current Quantum Metric customer and want to learn more, reach out to your customer success team member to get the most out of Quantum Metric, or visit the Quantum Metric Community

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