Most companies internally and externally report on data for dozens of different functions and applications. For example, you might generate reports internally to examine the success rate of your recent recruiting campaign. You might also generate dashboard reports for clients, keeping them up-to-date on the performance of their marketing campaign or a similar project.
But what is it that makes a data report effective, and how can you improve upon that effectiveness?
What It Means to Be Effective
Let’s start by describing what it means to have an “effective” data report. For a report to be effective, it needs to be understood clearly. That means the person reading the report is capable of fully comprehending not just the numbers that are printed on the page, but also what they mean for the organization (or the project). This clear communication is your highest priority.
As a secondary priority, you can make your report more effective by making it quicker and easier to dissect. If your reader can get to the right conclusion in 15 minutes, rather than 45 minutes, you can consider your report to be more effective.
How to Make a Data Report More Effective
So what strategies can you use to make your report easier and quicker to understand?
- Use the right tools. Your first job is to use the right selection of tools. If you’re relying on a dashboard reporting tool that’s clunky or non-intuitive, you’re going to struggle to create any type of report. And if you’re using a tool that doesn’t allow for any customization, you won’t be able to modify or tweak the finished report to your liking. Ideally, you’ll use a custom dashboard reporting tool that allows you to build your own reports from the ground up, and/or rely on templates as an effective starting point.
- Know your audience. When designing a report, it’s important to know your audience. Are you reporting data to a supervisor who loves to dig into technical analysis? Or are you reporting to someone who doesn’t know much about data science at all? In some cases, you’ll want to provide more detailed numbers and metrics, while in others, you’ll want to keep things as simple and streamlined as possible.
- Prepare center stage. Most people, even seasoned experts, start to form an impression of the report once their eyes begin to scan it. Accordingly, you should feature some of the most important numbers and graphs in prominent positions on the first page. For example, you might have your 5 most valuable KPIs featured in boxes along the top of the report, with supplementary information peppered throughout the rest of the document. This will help you make the right first impression and set the right tone for the remainder of the report.
- Avoid overload. New data reporters often make the mistake of cramming their reports full of additional details for their own sake. However, more information isn’t always better; too much information can actively confuse your readers, or lead them to false conclusions. Make sure to refine your data presentation, so the most important metrics are apparent without excessive competition.
- Include a few visuals. Data visuals are powerful because they appeal to our intuitions; it’s much easier to analyze data in visual form than it is by crunching the numbers. Accordingly, it’s a good idea to include some visuals, especially if presenting to a lay audience. However, don’t go overboard; too many visuals can interfere with the accuracy of reader interpretations.
- Strive for consistency. If you’re going to be generating data reports for this person on a regular basis, strive for consistency. It’s helpful to generate a nearly-identical report each month, so your reader can compare apples-to-apples. If you’re generating reports with different data sets or for different purposes, try to retain the same overall structure.
- Provide context and explanations. Not all data will be immediately apparent or interpretable. It’s important to provide context and explanations, wherever appropriate. Sometimes, that means including commentary on top of the report; other times, it means presenting swaths of other data from previous reports.
- Be prepared to follow up. Finally, be prepared to follow up with your reader. Don’t just send them a report; talk to them about it, and see if they have any questions. Conversations are almost always more powerful than the one-dimensional transmission of a report.
Generating data reports with the help of a data dashboard is an art you’ll have to practice. Over time, you’ll be able to refine your approach, tweaking the layout and arrangement of your data visuals. Gather feedback from your readers and recipients, and ask them if there are any ways your report could be better. Chances are, they’ll have a few suggestions that could make you more effective.