When Reports Go Bad

Originally published 4 August 2010

The purpose of any report or dashboard is to communicate information and to support decision making or prompt action.

Whether static or interactive, strategic, analytical or operational, it’s crucial that reports communicate the right information and that they do so quickly and consisely.

Less is More

Early in my career, I remember asking a customer to explain which reports were produced by a legacy system that was being replaced. I was directed to a stack of tractor-feed paper the thickness of several phone directories. “These are the reports for this week”, he said. Imagine my dismay! I wondered how we would ever manage to create all this output from the replacement system.

What I hadn’t grasped at this point was that the high volume of output, far from being a strength of the legacy system was in fact a deficiency. You only have to put yourself in the position of a report consumer to see why. How on earth would you draw conclusions and make good decisions when presented with such a huge stack of information? How would you find the information you needed? How would you even know whether the information was there?

Summarised Data

No one is going to be impressed by a report listing page after page of line items, nor are they going to be able to do anything with the information. Therefore, data must be summarised at a meaningful level and displayed at an appropriate precision.

Fewer Reports

The fewer reports you have, the easier it will be for users to find the information they need. Whenever you create a report, you need to consider what other information a user would need in order to make a decision or take action, and make sure that such other information is also included. For instance, having separate reports for monthly sales, year-to-date sales and projected sales makes no sense. Anyone taking the trouble to view one of these reports will almost certainly be interested in the others, so these reports should be combined.
Combining reports should not result in significantly longer reports, since any content that was repeated across the original reports only needs to be included once.

Shorter Reports

The shorter a report, the easier it will be to digest. You should remove all superfluous information and consider limiting the number of records that are listed in tables (e.g., only show the top five).

You should also consider limiting the number of columns that are shown in tables and resist the temptation to show information “because it’s there” or in order to make the report easier to test. Although you were probably taught at school to always show your work, doing so in a report will only serve to distract from the main message.

Wherever possible, a report should fit within one screen (without the need to scroll) and within one printed page. It’s only when users can see all relevant information at once that insight becomes possible. This is especially true of any executive dashboards.

Inevitably, some reports will need to be longer than one page. Nonetheless, the first page of the report should always include a summary of relevant information to support decision making.

Highlight Interesting Data

Organisations have a lot of boring data. “Sales last month were broadly in line with targets” – OK. “Revenue was slightly higher than budgeted” – OK.

While it’s comforting for users to be able to find out that things are running as expected, no one wants to spend time sifting through boring data just in case there’s something interesting they should have noticed and acted upon. Therefore, the most interesting information should be given the greatest prominence. This can be achieved in a variety of ways.

At the simplest level, just sorting the results in a table in a useful and consistent order can make a big difference. For instance, the top selling or fastest growing products could always be listed first – these products are inherently interesting on the basis of their sales performance.

Secondly, conditional formatting can be used to explicitly highlight those items that are good, bad or anomalous through the use of colour, styling and icons – these items are deemed to be interesting on the basis of a particular measurement.

Finally, the most interesting information can be collated together in the form of a list of “headlines”. For instance, on a report concerned with stock levels, the “headlines” section would list the products that have low stock levels, ordered by sales performance.

Interactivity

Once a users’ attention has been drawn to something really interesting, they will inevitably wish to ask further questions. The ability to navigate directly to a report answering those further questions is therefore immensely valuable. Reports and dashboards should not be created in isolation, but rather as a suite of related components. They should allow users to navigate through mouse clicks alone (i.e., without the need to re-enter parameters).

Visualisation

Everyone knows the old maxim “a picture is worth a thousand words”. But all too often, reports are written using tables only and no charts. It is so much easier to see the relative size of figures and the direction of trends when they are presented in a chart – without a chart you are left hunting for a calculated column in a table or performing calculations in your head!

There are many different styles of chart available: bar charts, line charts, stacked charts, pie charts, gauges, traffic lights and many others. Chart styles should be chosen carefully so that the right kind of information can be understood quickly by the person viewing the report.

Given a picture is worth a thousand words, it’s important to note that there’s no need to use something as verbose as a chart when a few words or icons can convey the same information just as well on their own. For instance, the text “Revenue £13.1M (Target £12.5M)” is very consise and may be perfectly adequate.

Where charts are used, it’s normal to include a chart title, axis labels, scales and legends. In most cases, charts simply can’t be interpreted without such information, so you should always include them by default.

Having said this, if we wish to convey the nature of a trend in a very consise manner, a “sparkline” chart is very effective. Sparklines (the invention of Edward R. Tufte) are line charts showing how the value of a variable has changed over time, with no axes or scales. Sparklines occupy very little space and convey a significant quantity of extra information when displayed next to a label and value. Similarly, some of the most succinct and engaging charts I have seen are in newspapers and magazines where scales are all but dispensed with, and a chart is shown with just one or two carefully placed numbers and captions.

Reusable Layouts

Many reports are needed to support a typical business process. For instance, company directors will need reports enabling them to understand which departments bring in the most revenue, departments will want to understand which product types bring in the most revenue, and buyers will need to understand which product lines bring in the most revenue.

The various reports needed to answer these questions will each have their own differing sets of parameters and will each show data at a different level of detail. However, the need to break down revenue into constituent parts is a common need that can be served by reports sharing a common layout and structure.

The re-use of common layouts helps people to understand reports because they only need to learn how to interpret each layout once. For instance, they quickly learn that they should look in the top left hand area of the report for the headline figures and in the top right area for trend information (for example). Similarly, the use of consistent scales in graphs helps people to interpret information. In a recent project, we decided that all trend charts should show eight quarters’ worth of data, regardless of how much or how little historical data was available. This made it easy for users to see whether there was a yearly cycle and to correctly interpret charts that were presented side by side.

Conclusion

If you don’t want your reports to end up in the trash, it’s essential to remember that they must communicate the right information quickly and consisely. The five key principles are:
  • Less is more – the one page rule

  • Highlight the interesting data

  • Allow users to navigate between reports

  • Use charts

  • Use consistent layouts


  • Chris Daniels

    Chris Daniels is an Information Management Consultant at IPL, a leading UK IT services company specialising in the delivery of intelligent business solutions. He has over 10 years of experience in helping a wide range of high profile clients exploit the full potential of their information.

    Chris has significant information management expertise gained across a variety of sectors, including manufacturing, finance, government, and telecoms.  Chris has ongoing engagements in business intelligence, undertaking business analysis and the specification of information systems.  He can be reached at chris.daniels@ipl.com.

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