Summary: As business data explodes at a surprising pace, many companies still struggle with reporting. They create reports that confuse or overwhelm their executives–hampering their ability to make decisions. What do your executives think about their reports? In this article, we explore a few ways to give them reports that they love.
Tell 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 may very well be in the minority.
You see, reporting is a perpetual problem. It was a problem 30 years ago. It’s still a problem today. Case in point: In the conferences we attended last year, reporting is still a huge topic 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? In this article, I’d like to explore a few steps you can take.
Start with the data
I hesitate to even add this point because it seems so obvious. But, I include it for one big reason: It’s still a problem for many businesses. I still run across businesses who base their reporting efforts off of potentially unsafe data sources (cough, cough…spreadsheets).
One of the biggest questions to ask before creating a report: Where is your data coming from?
This is an important question for a couple of reasons:
- Validity: Is your data coming from a trusted source? Building a great report over faulty data is perhaps the biggest reporting mistake you can make. Why? If that data is used for decision-making, it will produce flawed decisions. This will erode trust and credibility in your reporting efforts. Executives will learn to question the data, and may even ignore the reports altogether.
- Freshness: How old is the data in the report? Is it a few days old or real-time? Of course, not every report needs real-time data. But, any reporting option you use should have the ability to deliver real-time reports. I can’t tell you how often I run across spreadsheet-driven reporting processes that take days to deliver (outdated) reports.
How can you create reports over fresh and clean data? It all starts with the source. For instance, is your data coming from a spreadsheet or a database? If it’s in a spreadsheet, how many people have manipulated that data? Who has access to it? If it’s in a database, how does it get there? Is it manually entered?
If I could boil all of those questions into one point, it’s this: The more touchpoints a dataset has, the less reliable it becomes. If your data must be manipulated manually before generating a report, be wary of its accuracy.
“Learn and test the data: Nothing loses trust in a visualization faster than questions about validity of the underlying data,” says Travis James Fell MBA, CSPO, CDMP, Product Manager at Hypori. “Visualization developers do not have to do the actual data architecture and engineering work to provide data, but they need to know the source, be familiar with the data transformations and speak to the data quality.”
Understand the user
Before you create any report, ask this question: Who is using it? And no, this isn’t about identifying a job title. It’s about truly understanding what the user wants and needs.
Before making any report, talk to the user. Ask questions like:
- What are your goals for this report?
- What metrics do you care about?
- What actions will this report lead to?
That last question is extra important, as it exposes the entire goal of the report. If they can identify an actionable goal, you can focus your efforts around it. On the flip side, if a report won’t drive any actions for the user, is it worth creating?
“Be aware of who you are creating reports for,” says Saheen C Najeeb, Digital Marketing Analyst at Fingent. “This goes a long way in being able to add the relevant data and helps avoid the irrelevant bits of information making your reports crisp and effective.”
Keep it simple (yet actionable)
Executives are busy. They don’t have time to sift through mountains of data. After all, that’s what the report is for.
Yet, many reports still make the same mistake: They’re loaded with irrelevant data. They’re filled with data that ultimately doesn’t support the decision-making process.
The result: Executives are stuck with overwhelming reports. They’re forced to pick the important points out of a sea of data…if they have time.
The correct approach: Keep it simple. As mentioned in the last point, start with the user’s goals for each report. What KPIs will drive this goal? Once you understand that, focus your report around those KPIs. Keep it simple and to the point. Don’t try to fill the report with unnecessary data.
“Don’t fill your reports with superfluous data or meaningless explanations,” says Phil Strazzulla, CEO & Founder, Select Software Reviews. “The purpose of a report is to tell me what, not why. Give me the state of things and the path forward, not a post-mortem of the last quarter.”
Make it interactive
While you should focus your report on a goal and keep it simple, that doesn’t mean they should be static. For instance, what if the executive wants to see the data in a different way, filter or sort that data, or drill down into more details? If you hand them static reports, that’s impossible.
Modern reports should be interactive. They must allow for filtering, sorting, and drill-downs – letting your executives view the data from multiple angles without going back to you for changes.
The great part about interactive reports: They function statically or interactively. They can still deliver all of the necessary information without any interaction from the user. But, the ability to drill deeper or view the data from another angle still exists should they want it.
“Interactive reports are a game-changer for busy managers,” Ty Stewart, CEO & President of Simple Life Insure. “Many don’t have time to sift through vast amounts of data to answer one question or two specific questions. Interactive report functions allow detailed filtering so we can get what we need right away, when we need it.”
Use visual cues
Now, you can place the right data in the report. You can focus on the KPIs and keep things simple and to the point. But, it might all go to waste if you don’t incorporate visual cues.
How does the human eye process visual cues? According to this article, our eyes automatically process and rank visual data based on certain factors:
Size – Our eyes are drawn to larger elements. When it comes to reporting, use that to your advantage. Emphasize the most important data with a larger size.
Color – Our eyes are drawn to bright colors. Incorporate conditional formatting into your reports. For instance, highlight low growth rates or poor performance in red. High growth rates or great performance should be highlighted in green. Conditional formatting like this helps executives understand the numbers at a glance.
Contrast – Stark differences between elements is a good way to draw the user’s eye to the brighter one.
Repetition – Repeated elements draws the user’s eye. For example, you could emphasize all of the data you want to highlight using a specific color.
Proximity – When elements are in close proximity to one another, users assume they’re related. Group related data together while separating unrelated data with whitespace.
Texture and Style – Emphasize actions or data using distinct textures/styles. For instance, use a specific button to highlight actions that you want the user to take.
Now, we’re just scratching the surface here. If you’re responsible for reporting, I encourage you to educate yourself on visual design. You’ll create reports that display both useful information AND make it easy to understand. And, of course, don’t forget to incorporate data visualizations to really drive your points home.
“The age-old adage of keeping reports simple still holds true,” says Najeeb. “But simple doesn’t mean boring. Using data visualization you can create engaging reports that are simple and effective at conveying the data.”
Make it proactive
The problem with most reports: They’re only effective if the user is physically looking at it. As soon as they step away, it’s not very useful. How can you drive action if you can’t control when the executives use the report?
I believe reports should have a proactive element. Any reporting tool worth its salt should offer some type of automation options. These options let your reports respond to changes in data automatically, or perform tasks based on pre-determined events.
For instance, suppose there’s a KPI that an executive wants to closely monitor. You can set up email or SMS alerts to notify him/her when key data points rise or fall beyond pre-set numbers. It should alert them to a problem as it’s happening, with a link to the report so they can dive into the data. In this way, you can create reports that are useful all of the time–not just when someone looks at them.
Make it accessible anywhere
How will the executive access the report? Maybe they’ll view it on a PC. Maybe they’ll view it on a tablet. Maybe they’ll view it on a smartphone. Modern web applications (including reports) must adapt to any device.
Going one step further, some prefer to consume the data outside of the screen. Many executives prefer to print their reports, and go through everything on paper. But, without a well-formatted print version, the report will be nearly unreadable. It’s important that you account for every potential format when creating the report.
These are just a ways to create reports that executives will love, but I’m sure the list could be longer. Would you add anything to this list? Feel free to comment below!