09 Jul 2013

Reports, reports and of course, reports

The amount of data we are presented with on a daily basis can be overwhelming. We are inundated with endless streams of data, much of which is frankly of little use and tends to obstruct our need for clarity and fair analysis. Whether it be SQL Server Reports for Invoices, Business Intelligence dashboard, justifying an expenditure for new projects or organising resources, a report always comes in handy when displaying information productively. As a starting point to cut through the clutter, Here are 5 tips to making reports more useful. 1) Make a template with what is required; Often if you can visualise requirements it will be easier to create and convey useful information. Think about how to display information that is easy for the report user to understand. 2) Understand the concept of modular reports; Break your reports down into small sections where each section tells a story. When you build complex layouts, build the layout in stages. 3) Ask lots of questions; like: – What format do I want the report to appear in? – What structure do you want to use to present the data in the report? – What data do you want your readers to see? Should the data or format be filtered for different audiences? 4) Write the narrative; Both queries and reports can be challenging tasks. As a result, it is important to simplify them as much as possible. The best way to simplify the report creation process is to write the narrative for your task. This process helps guide your report creation process and break-down the report into its component parts. Thinking the narrative is helpful, but writing the narrative will help even more. Most commonly your narrative will start with “I want…” and then conclude with the data features you are looking for. For example: I want the email addresses, mailing addresses, and phone numbers for all my clients in Sydney. With this example you can pick out the pieces that pertain to the query and the pieces that pertain to the report. “all clients in Sydney” is the query. That leaves me with “I want the email addresses, mailing addresses, and phone numbers.” My report should contain those fields. Writing the narrative gives you a framework to look back on and reference as you build the report. 5) Make it visually Compelling; The most important information needs to be consumable in 5 seconds, Spend 10 minutes on design (as opposed to the zero we typically spend). Here are some tips I have used personally:
  • Avoid 3-D effects
  • Avoid default, out-of-the box styles.
  • Match corporate colour palates
  • Remember…this is what executives care about.
  • You don’t need a wide variety of colour …just shades of one colour
  • You don’t need borders or anything else that distracts the eye
  • Use darker colour when there’s a warning
  • No fluff
  • Use thin fonts (Arial, Segoe UI)
  • Dim column headers
  • Dim labels
  • Use simple icons