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Report design and presentation of data is not all art

Tools make it easier to be creative and be a winner

Until recently, it was very difficult to present data in other than tabular form without a great deal of expense. The advent of PC-based graphics and laser printers have minimized that. Now artistic capabilities are available to everyone. The only limitation is one's imagination and artistic taste. Tastes and style now are issues that creators of graphic reports must deal with.

Another problem that we now have is that graphics do not convey the ideas the data represents. As a guideline, definitions have been developed for producing good versus poor graphic presentations.

Data Presentation Rules Many reporting systems have been developed in concert with traditional accounting data analysis and presentation. This has led to a certain amount of excess measurement of minute details that do not matter. As reports are produced out of computer systems, totals are traditionally printed on the last page.

List summary totals on the first page of a report not on the last

The best data is normally so buried that action that could be taken is taken too late or is not taken at all. It may seem obvious but this one action will improve the value of any reporting system where it is implemented.

Added to the accounting thrust of massive amounts of detailed information, is the desire by many on the technical side of the Information Systems business to be accepted by management. This causes too much irrelevant data to be captured and reported. We can all remember the reports that were produced by well intentioned individuals that provided no value except to the pulp mills that produced the paper. Why do all reports have to be detail reports?

Produce summary reports as the primary source of information

Most executives and managers do not have enough time to get their day-to-day functions completed in a cost effective manner. In addition, so much data crosses each individuals desk that summary data is the most beneficial. We have found the most powerful presentations of data are those that are the simplest and most easily comprehended. Once an idea crosses into multiple pages, many factors begin to take hold.

Produce One Page Reports

In the case of senior executives, we have found there are many who do not want to know the details of an issue. Rather they want to know what they need to know. It is more important to communicate back to them with the facts on the status of solutions and trends. They do not want to be the ones who find problems by reviewing data. That is the job of the individuals who are producing the reports.

One CEO told me that he spent his entire career hiring people better than him. He did not want to do their jobs for them. Rather he wanted them to do their jobs and give him the tools necessary to measure their performance.

Most reporting systems in place are like the engineer who is measuring the size of the hole in the side of the ship as it is sinking. It would have been much better if time had been spent on a good radar system to show what was about to happen before it did.

Design metrics that show trends not reports that show history

In the course of a day or a week, so much information crosses the desks of decision makers that much of it gets lost. The only time that some of this critical information can be seen is when it is recast in a period reporting process. The key is to have a period reporting process that is responsive enough to allow for an enterprise to alter course.

Graphic Report Guidelines

Good Poor
Words spelled out Abbreviations
Legends and words on a single line No legends and/or words that run over a single line
Discussion area for brief explanation Graphic that has no legend/discussion or a cryptic one
Shading or types of lines that are well defined and contrasting Graphic that is "ugly" or in bad taste and/or too cluttered
If color is used, it is soft (i.e. blue) Multiple colors not taking into account "good taste", color implications (red for profit), and color sensitivity (color blindness of audience)
Type is clear and does not overpower the graphic Type is "loud" and overbearing
Upper and lowercase type (Times Roman/Helvetica proportional fonts) Type is upper case and all bold (Courier fix spaced fonts)

Have a formal reporting process that will drive decisions to be made before the report is produced. In this way you will get much more value out of the process. If you just produce the report and shuffle the paper, why do it?

Data that is presented crisply and cleanly is much more valuable than a statistical table. USA Today showed the publishing industry the power of graphics. While that has been going on, the move away from computer screens that can just show characters and numbers to screens with objects, sound, and motion has accelerated.

Use graphical presentations of data the graphic should do the analysis

Analysis of data with graphic reports can simplify the communication process. If the data is presented as just a trend of a single item it is in a vacuum. Things to be considered are:

  • Plan versus actual - if the numbers are what was budgeted and nothing favorable or adverse is occurring, then no time will be wasted on unneeded analysis.
  • Current year versus last year for the same period- report on 13 periods for a monthly metric.
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