Scatter Plots and Pie Charts… Is that all?

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A famous adage in marketing is “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Today more and more data is being collected so companies can find out which activities give the highest return-on-investment (ROI). Unfortunately data is often messy and unorganised. To get the most out of data it needs to be transformed into information that adds value to a business. Then that information needs to be organised into a report for a specific audience and purpose.  To build a great report, consider a couple of factors: visualisation, limiting automation, and creating a story.

Importance of Visualisation

Visualisation is so powerful because humans respond and process visual data better than any other type of data. The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and around 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual. Since we are visual by nature, we can utilise this skill to enhance data processing and organisational effectiveness.

Visualisation does not only make big data easier for the human brain to understand. It also makes it easier to detect patterns, trends and other outliers in groups of data. Good data visualisation should provide meaning to complicated datasets, so that the message is clear and concise. Relevant visuals will be the X-Factor in most analytical reporting. It can take your report from being a good report, to being a great report!

Limit your Automation Mindset

I know what you are thinking. Why spend 5 hours compiling the same report which is distributed every week, if you can just programme a computer to perform the work for you? In the end, all you do is check the final output and authorise the report to be shared with the client. In this way you will be able to produce more reports and make more money!

Well, this is where one of the big questions in every business comes in – Quantity or Quality? To manage this in a reporting environment you need to limit your automation in such a way that you have control over shaping the final output of your reports. The main focus of any report should be to communicate how data has behaved and how that impacts the business.

A fully automated reporting process or tool often limits both your understanding of system performance and the range of information that you can present. If your ‘Automation Mindset’ is in any way preventing you from fully engaging with reports for a client, do not just accept it, but rather find an alternate way to analyse results and present your findings.

Create a Story

Every report, or any kind of documentation which provide results, should tell a story. A story which will guide the audience or reader from the introduction through to the conclusion. Usually, in a report, there would be some critical pieces of information you would like to highlight – and these are known as the key aspects of a report. The key aspects should be the main focus throughout the report, you can think of it as the ‘main characters’ in the story. Here is some good advice given by Neil Davies, “Never include a chart unless it supports a point you are trying to make. If the chart is not helping to tell the story, then it is not serving a purpose and should not be included.”

In the same way that some things should be excluded from a report, there are some things that should be included. A good example would be business context within an informational document. There will be some people who use your report but who are not aware of the full context. For this reason, it is always helpful to add a few easy-to-read paragraphs that give some background information to answer the 3 W’s (Who, What and Why).

Conclusion

So for those who still remember the question asked in the beginning, the answer is NO. Reporting is not just Scatter Plots and Pie Charts; it is much more. Stephen Townshend, who is a Technical Specialist at IAG, changed my mind-set around reporting and the importance thereof by stating:

“Our reports are the most important deliverable in our line of work. I think it’s worth the effort to put some care and attention into them. There’s no excuse for those all-too-common collections of confusing charts and paragraphs that no-one ever reads.

This is even more important when we start automating our reporting. Without a human being curating the content to suit the audience, it’s easy to end up presenting something which does not provide any value.”