Best Practices in Creating a Usable Report
It’s all about the data. You love the data. You work hard collecting the data: metrics, benchmarks, sales numbers, operations stats, expenses, etc. At times you live for the data.
And now it’s time to share the data. How can you make people care as much about your data as you do? How can you help them understand your report? The answer is in data representation. The best data in the world means little if you can’t put that data into a usable report. A “good” report, is not only one shows the conclusions you want it to. The best report is one that contains the data you need and facilitates making vital decisions based upon that data. But what exactly constitutes a usable report? In a nutshell, a usable report contains the following key features: accuracy, completeness, relevance, visual interest, timeliness and clarity.
Sure, this sounds basic, but it’s easier said than done. One of the most important factors in creating a meaningful report is the level of knowledge and depth of understanding by the report writer. Too often, especially in enterprise reporting situations, this is not compatible with the skills needed to actually create the report. In an environment where the person designing the report is not, in fact the expert on the report data, a template may be inappropriate to the data. Or the template may designate that data is laid out in a misleading way. Or it may leave out key pieces of data so the conclusion is invalid. Or… the list goes on.
It’s crucial that the report designer use a solution that allows the creator the flexibility to include the necessary and appropriate data. However, if the software used to generate the reports is too technical and forbids the involvement of the report owner in the process, you can end up with an unusable report.
In addition to the report owner’s involvement, there are many other keys to designing a usable report. One of the most important features is accuracy. We all understand that if the data isn’t accurate, it’s useless. You wouldn’t want to rely on a report that, say, showed sales had increased by 2 percent after an advertising blitz if the increase really were 20 percent.
How can we ensure the accuracy of the data? One way is to use a reporting solution where the data flows directly out of the data source into the report. This leaves no room for error, nor is there a need for interpreting the data. This direct process ensures a level of security, because it takes humans out of the equation. When you don’t re-key figures pulled from one place and entered into another, the data is inherently more accurate and dependable.
Windward Reports helps ensure data accuracy in just this way. When you use Windward Reports to create a report template, you insert tags that designate a data source. The tags pull the data directly from the databases or other data sources, automatically. Data can be pinpointed from multiple data source and included together in one report. In addition, the Windward AutoTag tool validates the tags to ensure they are spelled exactly right and that end tags exist where necessary.
Being able to pull data directly from a database may safeguard the accuracy of the data, but it doesn’t guarantee that you are receiving all the data you need in order to form an accurate conclusion. The data must be complete, and in our digitized world, dealing with machine readable data can be a challenge.
Many reports are the summary of bits of data that reside in different data sources and in different data formats, and bringing them together is essential to the impact of the reports. For instance, you may be creating reports that display financial data spanning long time periods. You may be pulling data from several different types of databases, and the data may be in a variety of formats. Unfortunately, many reporting products do not allow the inclusion of certain types of data or inclusion from multiple sources. But getting the data to say what you need them to say is often a matter of what types input you can use, what output you can get and how you can make them look.
Windward Reports is flexible regarding the type of input you include. Allowing data to be pulled from various places, including an infinite number of XML, Sequel or other databases, it can even handle even legacy flat file data sets. You can have all the necessary information included, together – right in front of you.
Sometimes having a complete data set isn’t what you’re looking for, however. A report writer needs access to the complete data, but must be able to select only the relevant information from that data pool. This can be critical because not only do you need to call upon data that is useful you need to be able to exclude sensitive, confidential or otherwise inappropriate to share.
For example, suppose an executive must share a report as part of a presentation at a professional conference. The executive needs the ability to show the results of a certain technique or tactic that the company employed without sacrificing the privacy of the data. In this case, it’s crucial that the report writer know what key data must be extracted and included, while at the same time the report writer must know what to leave out or risk compromising security or competitive secrets. A programmer, designing the report, might know how to access various databases, but not which specifics are off limits. Further, a particular reporting tool , might not allow such pinpointing of data.
Windward Reports facilitates the use of relevant data because it is designed to be easy to use for the business manager. Reports are written in Microsoft Word, so there’s no need to learn a complex new tool or leave report writing to your overworked programming staff or database administrators. The people who are best suited to making the decisions about which data are included are the same ones who write the reports. Specific bits of data can be selected, without showing the entirety of the data population, ensuring that only relevant facts are included.
When working with data, it’s easy to get caught up in figuring out how to present those words and numbers in a straightforward, linear manner. Sometimes, however, the best, most clear way to present data is to use visual elements such as charts, graphs and other eye-catching graphics. While you don’t want a report that is ornate or busy, you want to be able to outline key concepts and illustrate trends.
We all see this in our day-to-day lives. Newspaper or magazine reporters (after all, reporters create reports, right?) often use charts and graphs to illustrate information they otherwise would have difficulty presenting. In a report on the increased cost of housing, for instance, a chart can more easily represent the data than a paragraph of numbers. In business reporting, the same holds true. It may be as simple as changing the font of a data point to highlight it, or using different fonts and styles within a report to separate out sections.
Windward Reports gives report writers the ability to create reports that are visually arresting. Because the writer creates a report in Word, anything Microsoft Word can do, the report writer can do. This includes design functions, font shapes, and other elements. For instance, you can insert a table into a report, call upon a graphic, or use different fonts, type sizes and text enhancements (such as bold, italicized or underlined text) to add visual interest.
When designing a report, it’s important that the report ultimately say what you need it to say or show what you need it to show. In part, this will depend heavily upon the accuracy of the data, the completeness of the data, the relevance of the data, and the visual interest.
One of the best ways to create a clear report is to use a reporting solution that lets you easily put down on paper what you envision in your head. For many experienced report writers, the challenge isn’t in designing a clear report. The challenge is finding the right tool to allow you to physically create that report.
Based on Microsoft Word, Windward gives the report writer the ability to create a clearly written report quickly and easily. The report writer can take advantage of all of Microsoft Word’s flexibility; data is not confined to a narrow output. You can directly pull data from any source, and you can choose what data to include. Plus, because you have the ability to make the report visually interesting, you can display the in a way that lets the end user quickly and easily understand the point of the report. And because Windward Reports allows the final report output to be PDF, RTF, HTML, WordML, XLS, spreadsheetML, TXT, or multi-part MIME email messages format, you’ll be able to share your usable reports with whomever you like.
Picture this: you’ve created an ideal report, with access to accurate, complete and relevant data displayed in a clear format. You run the report and present it to your boss. Two weeks later you are summoned to the boss’ office to be praised in person for your stellar report. And by the way, your boss says, could you bring the most updated report with you, and could you also bring along last week’s report? You panic, because while the report you handed in was accurate at the time, it’s now out-of-date — and your reporting solution doesn’t let you generate reports on the fly or run regularly scheduled reports.
Obviously, a reporting solution is fairly useless if it doesn’t allow you to retrieve the data you need when you need it. The best reporting tool is one that allows you to automate the process of generating reports.
Windward Reports can be set to run reports in a predictable and repeatable manner. Like setting an alarm clock, you can set the system to pull a report on certain days and times. In addition, you can create a report template within minutes.
What’s the bottom line? It’s not enough to ‘know your stuff,’ as they say. Great data is useless if you can’t share it, show it or have it make your case. Today more than ever, data representation is difference between having an effective report vs a bunch of useless information. Having the best reporting tool to allow the right person to show the relevant facts in an interesting way, makes all difference in getting a report you can use.
If you would like a PDF version of this article, you can get it at The Importance of Data Representation.