How to create web reports your executives love

EducationTell me: Are you happy with your reporting? Or, perhaps a better question: Are your executives happy with your reporting? If you answered “Yes” to both questions, I applaud you. But, you are in the minority.

Reporting is a perpetual problem. It was a problem 30 years ago. It’s still a problem today. Case in point: We recently attended a conference, and reporting was one of the biggest topics of conversation…but not in a good way. Many of the executives we spoke with voiced their displeasure over their company’s reporting.

The big question: How can you improve your reporting? How can you create web reports that your executives will love? While I’ve frequently written about reporting in the past, today I’m taking a new approach. To help answer that question, we’ve solicited input from other experts in the field, and have compiled their advice (as well as some of my own) below. I hope you find it useful:

1. Use the right data

If I had to list the single biggest problem with reports these days, it is this: Reports are loaded with irrelevant data. Many make the mistake of filling their reports with data that ultimately doesn’t support the decision-making process.

“In my experience, too many people measure what’s easy to measure, they measure too many things too infrequently, and they don’t connect measures and reports to the cause-and-effect relationships that create value for customers,” explains Tom Cox, a Management Consultant and Executive Coach. “The best report supports executive decision making. Take time to understand what they should be thinking about, then help them get the data they need to think more clearly with more knowledge of the facts.”

How can you build reports like this? Cox goes on to explain a step-by-step process for building go-to reports for executives, complete with an example process:

  1. Find out how the CEO is rating this executive’s performance
  2. Find out how the executive is rating his staff’s performance
  3. Find the LEADING indicators that predict these ratings
  4. Measure the FEWEST things you can, with HIGH frequency
  5. Adjust the measure frequently based on input

Example:

  1. CEO Charlie is rating Marketing VP Vicky on the quality of leads she is generating and passing to Sales.
  2. Vicky is rating her staff on quantity of leads per campaign.
  3. You build a report of leads per campaign
  4. You cross-tab leads per campaign with the sales force close rate — showing quality in each different campaign — and run it weekly or daily
  5. As people complain (they always do), ask for better ways to measure, and use them.

2. Embrace conditional formatting

“Learn the key thresholds in your executive’s reporting world and incorporate them into reporting,” says Estelle Nicholson, an independent BI consultant. “Executives love conditional formatting. Low growth rates or poor performance should jump out at them in red. Make their reports proactive and provide them business intelligence by auto-flagging items for their attention. Naturally, provide drill-downs for when they want to see what is behind the numbers.”

In order to illustrate her point, look at the two tables below. Which is easier to read?

CondFormat

Obviously, the second table stands out. The colors help the reader quickly differentiate between the high and low orders. That’s the power of conditional formatting.

3. Be descriptive

When you create reports, think of it from the user’s perspective. Is everything clear? Be as descriptive with the data as possible. Sure, you may understand the data and where it comes from, but don’t assume it’s obvious.

“Don’t make them waste their time having to question you about anything,” explains Nicholson. “Is this calendar year or fiscal year? Are these projections fixed or based on cumulative real data? How current are these sales figures? Web reporting makes it very easy to add information ABOUT your information (meta data) without cluttering reports.”

4. Keep it short

“Executives want to be able to look in one place and see everything that they need to know,” says Martina Haskins, Director of Web Development at Mobius Works. “If your report can fit on one page, perfect. If not, then make sure the first page is a summary of the most important information.”

This is great advice, and I’d like add one quick point. Sometimes, your report will have more data than you can feasibly fit on one page/screen. Does this mean you should exclude vital data from your report for the sake of keeping it short? No! Rather, take advantage of drill downs, expandable fields, or hovers. These options let you include all the necessary data without overwhelming the user. For example, this interactive report includes a ton of information, but in an easily digestible format.

5. Span all devices

I recently read a great article that introduced an interesting concept: We now live in a one-screen world. It’s not about the different devices, it’s about whichever device we’re currently using. This applies directly to reporting, and web apps in general.

For instance, I used to access web reports on my PC. Now I expect the report to adapt to whichever device I’m using. I want reports that look native everywhere, from my PC to my smartphone to my tablet. Maybe mobile isn’t a requirement in your company yet, but this is the future. Executives will soon expect their reports to work everywhere, on whichever device they’re using at the time. Might as well start now.

Wrap up

Reporting is a common problem among businesses across the world. While there’s no single solution, or piece of advice that will solve all of your reporting problems, I hope this article helped. Of course, if you’d like to add any other ways to create reports that your executives will love, please share them in the comments.

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