Report Design – turn data into information

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The purpose of reports is to convey information. A report is one of the only user-facing steps when converting data into useful information.

There are a number of things you need to consider when designing reports, all inter-related.

One important thing that’s often overlooked is that your opinion, as the report designer/developer, is not that important. You won’t be using the report every day.

Therefore it’s the consumers of the data that matter.

One of the key skills is trying to find out what the report consumers actually want to see.

Quite often you’ll find they don’t really know what they want to see.

Sometimes they will have an idea but it’s not easy to articulate. Plus it may not give the information they actually want. What questions should the report answer?

Your job as the report designer is to make the report users life as easy as possible. If they want to answer a business ideally will have that answer with minimal clicks.

Generally, you’ll find if they have to download data, put it into Excel and then manipulate it then usage of the report won’t be good.

You’re actually creating work for the user, while a report should answer questions and speed up processes.

To create a report you need to think about the following:

Audience

The first thing you need to consider is the audience.

You can’t decide on the type of report or the software to produce the report until you know who the audience is.

The marketing department will want to see something different to the board.

It’s likely the further down the chain of command the more detail and more flexibility they will want.

Generally, board level reports will be summaries showing trends, allowing simple comparisons and providing an overview.

What to display

Once you know who will be consuming the report data you also need to know what way they want to be seeing the data. Are they wanting to see trends? Do they want raw data?

You need to find out what questions they’re trying to answer and why they’re trying to answer them. By asking these questions you should be able to think of the best way to supply the data to make their life as easy as possible.

What ‘reporting level’ should this report be? That’s a question you as the report designer should be able to answer based on the audience and what questions they’re trying to answer. See my earlier post describing the report type needed to tailor a report to the audience.

Performance

A report should be quick to return information – consumers of the report don’t really want to be waiting long to get the information.

How long they’re willing to wait obviously depends on the organisation, the history and the audience.

An organisation that previously had no information (it does happen for more than you’d think) is likely to be happy to wait 10-20 mins for the information to load.

Organisations with robust and established business intelligence/reporting departments are less likely to be tolerant of large waiting times for information.

If you find that performance is slow then investigate why and how to speed it up.

It could be you’re querying a large table in a database that could make better use of indexes.

Perhaps server/hardware improvements would help.

Maybe optimse the code to pull the data.

In the worst case situations, it could be the database architecture may be completely inadequate for what you’re trying to achieve.

Intuitive

One thing I like in my reports is that they’re intuitive for a new user.

Labelling must be clear and consistent with other reports in the same family.

If using colour be consistent in the use of colour.

For example, if showing a category in a number of different reports, the category should always have the same colour.

In addition it’s good to include a guide/help section explaining anything that might not be obvious.

I’d suggest you ask someone new to the company or unfamiliar with the reporting area what is not clear.

Someone with fresh eyes is ideal to tell you where you need to improve the in-report messaging.

Iterate

To reiterate the beginning of the article, your opinions as the report designer are not that important.

What matters is what the report consumers want.

You’re creating a report to supply information and make their job easier.

Therefore if they want changes you need to see how to incorporate them.

There is almost no chance the initial report will be the end report.

Expect to go through between 3 and 5 iterations before completion.

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