Tick Marks

April 1, 2008 | 10 min 6 sec

Tick marks are these dates that span the bottom of every timeline at a regular interval and they give context to your events. I would like to show you manual adjustment of tick marks and review automatic tick marks.



Tick Marks: Automatic and Manual

Hi, this is Adam. I am the creator of Bee Docs Timeline and today I would like to talk about tick marks. Tick marks are these dates that span the bottom of every timeline at a regular interval and they give context to your events. And, specifically today I would like to demonstrate two features related to these tick marks.

Automatic Tick Marks

I would like to show you a new feature that I have added in version 2.0.9 of Bee Docs Timeline and that is manual adjustment of tick marks. Before we get to that I would like to review automatic tick marks. This unique feature of Bee Docs Timeline has been a part of the software for over three years now and it is part of the secret sauce that makes timelines so quick and easy to create with our software.

A few years ago I spend some hours walking around the campus of the University of Washington taking pictures. I made an album in iPhoto of the best shots and then created this timeline using the iPhoto importer from Bee Docs Timeline.

The tick marks in this timeline were completely automatic, I did not do anything to set these up. And I know this might not be the most glamorous feature of Bee Docs Timeline, but the fact that you do not need to pay much attention to the tick marks is saving you a lot of time and hassle.

If you have spent much time creating charts with other software products, you will know from your experience that the problem with tick marks and chart labels is that you can spend a lot of time getting them right just to have them all messed up if you change the data chart or if you change the formatting. Some of the other products do have automatic settings but in my experience the results are not something that I would want to publish without making a lot of adjustments first.

Bee Docs Timeline is constantly adjusting the row of tick marks for you as you change your timeline so that they always look great and so that you can focus on your events. Let us take a closer look at the tick marks in this particular timeline. I want you to notice two things in particular: First, notice that the date format is showing the time only. How did it know to do that?

I will spare you all of the gory details, but it starts by examining all the events in your timeline and finding the most common date format used by your events. Then, depending on the interval between the tick marks, the software will either use that most common format or it will try to create one that relates to it.

This timeline is showing the time only because the events themselves are only showing the time and because all of the events fall within a single day. If the events spanned multiple days, the date would be shown in addition to the time. If the events spanned many years, the tick marks might only show the year.

The second thing I would like to point out about the automatic tick marks is the interval between the tick marks. In this timeline it is five minutes between each tick mark. This automatic interval is based on three factors. Number one, we do not want the tick marks so close together that they overlap each other or are hard to read. Number two, we do not want tick marks so far apart that they do not even show up on the timeline or are not useful. And number three, we want a date interval that makes sense. For example, every fifteen minutes makes a lot more sense to people than a tick mark every fourteen minutes.

There is one more thing I would like to say about Automatic Tick Marks before we move on. Over the three year history of Bee Docs Timeline, we have been improving the logic behind automatic tick marks to make them better and better. The next release, version 2.0.9 makes tick marks even smarter.

In particular, you might notice improvements if you have timelines with a short time span. For example, a timeline that spans a few minutes to a few hours. Also you might notice improvements for very long time spans such as charts that span thousands of years.

I was going to show you some before and after shots in this video—but it is just too boring—so I will just say that your timeline may have better tick marks when you open it with the new release.

So, automatic tick marks and the other automatic layout features of Bee Docs Timeline have helped many people create timelines that are elegant and functional without having to much time tweaking. But, I know there are some of you who been longing for more control, and for you folks I am happy to introduce manual tick mark adjustment in the new release. Let us jump right in and see how it works…

Manual Tick Marks

Here is a timeline of the Flickr blog. I used the RSS importer to create this one.

Notice the format of the tick marks here. They’re the numerical format "3/22/08," and it chose that format because that is the same format being used in the events. Also notice that the span between the tick marks is two days. Here is the 22nd, 24th, and the 26th, and so on…

Now, I would like to switch over to the dates tab and show you some of the new features that are in this new release. We start with the Event Date Format. This has always been here, but now we add the Row Date Format: this is the date format for the tick marks. And also, Row Tick Mark Spacing, this is the interval in between the tick marks.

These controls default to “Automatic” so they are disabled unless you turn off automatic, but you can still look at them to see how the software is laying out the tick marks. In this case you will see that it is using the numerical date format—3/31/08—It’s not using an era and it is not using a time. And, the tick mark spacing is set to two days.

Now, Let us say instead of this numerical date format, I would want a spelled out date format. I am going to turn off the automatic settings for the Row Date Format and I am going to switch the pop–up to a date format that has the dates spelled out.

You will notice that our timeline shows this new date format—spelled out—and it has automatically chosen a new tick mark interval that fits this longer date format. Instead of two days, we have gone to three days. This is because tick mark spacing is still in automatic mode even though we turned off the automatic settings for the format. And, it is a good idea to just override the setting you need to change and leave the other ones set to automatic.

Now Let us try a different date format—this one with the abbreviated month and the date. You will see that it has changed in our timeline and we now can fit a tick mark interval of one day. So the software has automatically found a new tick mark interval for us. So now it is very easy to select new date formats for the row tick marks and this is especially handy if you want a different date format in the tick marks than you have in your events.

So let me show you what happens if we select a date format that only contains the month and the year. Most of the tick marks disappear. that is because this timeline only spans about one month, so there is only going to be one tick mark—oh, there it is—March 2008.

So why not have one for every day? Well, if the date format does not show the date, then each one would be March 2008, March 2008, March 2008… and that would be silly. So the software here is still helping you out, even when you are in manual mode.

Now let us try a date format that makes more sense—one that is spelled out here. And, Let us try playing with some different tick mark intervals.

So, the automatic setting has chosen every three days for us, but Let us turn off the automatic setting and we will try some different things here. Now we could choose tick marks that span any number of days, months, or years but we will just choose "Days" for this timeline. And then, Let us try an interval of every two days…

That seems to fit our timeline here, but be sure to check the long months—like February—too, that those are not colliding with each other. OK, they are not, that seems to fit. Let us try every one day… Uh, the dates are colliding with each other. Remember with the manual settings it is possible to do some nasty looking tick marks. So either leave them set to automatic or be careful that you are using the right settings.

Let us switch this back to an interval that fits. Every two days fit nicely… Then Let us say we want to change something about our timeline. Let us reduce the image size and see what happens…

Now these tick marks are colliding with each other. The setting that worked just a minute ago is not working anymore because the size of our timeline has changed. For this reason, I really recommend that you leave the automatic settings turned on until you have your whole timeline laid out and you are ready to print or export. Then, if you still do not like the tick mark settings, go ahead and turn off the automatic mode and change them the way you want. If you have them in manual mode the whole time, you are going to have to be doing a lot of adjusting as you are changing your timeline…

…but it is no problem here. We can always turn “Automatic” back on and the tick marks will automatically adjust to fit. In this layout, every seven days fits nicely. We can also set the row date format back to “Automatic” and now the tick marks are using that numerical date format that matches the format of the events.

If you have been following Bee Docs Timeline for a while, you will know that one of the core philosophies of the software is that it takes care of a lot of the busy work for you so that you can focus on your events. This feature really represents one of the first times we have allowed you to go past the automatic layout and tweak the settings on your own.

I really look forward to your feedback to see if you like this feature or not—if you would like to see more features like this in the software in the future.


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