I Can See Clearly Now – Reports That Make Sense

It’s 7:45 on a Monday morning and you’ve just fired up your corporate email.  As you take the first sip of coffee and clear your head, your inbox comes into view.  Which item should you click on?  Nothing new from your boss or key customers.  Wait, here’s that new report from your team that’s suppose to detail key performance metrics for the previous week.  Two sips and a couple of clicks later and you’ve opened up a massive, multi-tab excel spreadsheet, replete with requisite graphs.

At first, you step back and try and divine an overall message or theme, much the way you’d admire the work of an impressionist master.  With no obvious story-line, you start drilling in to different sections of the spreadsheet, looking for context or direction.  Unfortunately, the sheet is a busy tapestry of data.  To view it in its entirety, you need to make the font unreadable.  To make the cells readable, you need to scroll in all four directions, forcing you to lose your place.  Pie charts are split into tiny, unrecognizable fragments. You think to yourself, “what are they trying to say, what is my takeaway?”  Frustrated, you move on to the spam Rolex ad and the vacation request from one of your team members.  You make a mental note to speak to the team about redesigning the weekly report.

Sound familiar?  I’d be shocked if you haven’t had this experience numerous times in your career.  In fact, throughout the corporate world, poor reporting techniques are the norm rather than the exception.  Despite the the non-stop growth of data, the increasing importance of analytics and the widespread availability of graphical desktop tools, the typical corporate report is no better than one produced in 1985 when Excel first debuted.

In fact, the opportunities and challenges of presenting information coherently has never been greater for the following reasons:

  • The rise of Big Data (internet scale data) creates huge opportunities for analyzing customer and competitor behaviors.  At the same time, due to its scale and complexity, Big Data creates even greater challenges in conveying meaningful information.
  • The ascendancy of collaborative cultures and work styles drives a need for clear and coherent communication.
  • The rise of mobile devices adds to the complexity of conveying visual information to smaller and more diverse screen sizes.

Unfortunately, despite the urgency for improved depiction of visual data, most corporate knowledge workers have minimal understanding of basic design concepts for reporting.  Coupled with the fact that human beings have inherent limitations interpreting pages crammed with numeric data and you have a losing formula for effective communication.  While many firms have put their employees through training in Excel or Powerpoint, the courses typically focus on mechanics as opposed to principles of visualization of data. However, there is an emerging science that looks to merge statistics, visual design and electronic media.

The lack of effective presentation of visual data in the corporate world is not a new topic.  Back in 1982, the professor and author Edward Tufte brought this problem to the public eye with his seminal book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information.  In this and subsequent works, Tufte has been a harsh critic of conventional corporate methods of displaying quantitative data.  He advocated for elegantly simplistic displays of data.  Tufte coined a term “chartjunk” to describe extraneous elements in charts that distracted instead of informing the viewer.  Instead, he felt that cleverly designed graphic elements could compress a large amount of information into a small, easily readable item.  To this end, he invented a concept called sparklines, a highly dense, line chart like element.  In the chart below, the sparkline is in the last cell of each row, representing the trend of sales data for each store across time.  Effectively, in one cell, 10 years of data is represented.

Sparkline Example - Sales by Store over Time

If you’d like to learn more about effective presentation of data,  in addition to Tufte’s books, there are many strong websites.  One particularly good one is Flowing Data.  One of its bloggers, Nathan Yau has published an excellent book, Visualize This.  Another excellent website on visual data depiction is Information Aesthetics.  For those who want to understand more about corporate dashboards, Dashboard Spy is a phenomenal site.  Another nice source of inspiration is a talk given recently by Amanda Cox, head of the excellent graphics department for the New York Times.

If you or your team are responsible for the depiction of visual data, I’d highly recommend reviewing the aforementioned sites or getting formal training.  In the meantime, keep the following ideas in mind when creating reports, presentations or dashboards representing quantitative data:

  • What points are you trying to convey?
  • Will your viewers have a “takeaway” thought afterwards?
  • Does the report help a viewer see that goals are being accomplished?
  • Does it clearly show issues or trends?
  • Does it help the viewer determine the pros and cons of a decision?
  • Does it clearly contrast alternative decisions?
  • Assuming it is not part of a live presentation, can the viewer ascertain things on their own?

Remember a well designed infographic is clear, concise,  and economical.

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2 Responses to I Can See Clearly Now – Reports That Make Sense

  1. Hugo Gordillo says:


    I really appreciated your posting (I Can See Clearly Now – Reports That Make Sense) and links to useful resources. I found Amanda Cox, and what that team is doing, very intriguing. This topic is the white elephant in the room for many organizations. Each day…. teams generate countless reports with large amounts of data and bar graphs, and no one knows how to interpret the content or translate this into something meaningful. IMHO, saying that something has increased or decreased, is not really saying anything of value. Organizations want to know WHY did it go up/down/or stay flat, and is that a good thing or a bad thing?? WHAT CAN WE DO to influence a positive result next time?

    I completely agree with your assessment of what presentations and reports need to provide the reader. The challenge seems to be that we need both the technical SMEs/data people/ and business leaders, to come to agreement on two key points first: (1) What KPI really drive the business or service? (2) How do we ensure that we have all of the data points needed to report and track on those KPI? When it comes to representing the data, we are lacking this as the foundation needed to represent the content in a meaningful way.

    Thanks for stimulating some thought on my part. I’m not sure if you are familiar with RSA Animate, but I think they have a great methodology and highly recommend this short video on ” Where Good Ideas Come From”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NugRZGDbPFU&feature=related

    Take care,


    • Dan says:

      Hi Hugo,

      Great hearing from you. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and appreciate your thoughtful comment. I am familiar with RSA Animate but had not seen that particular video. Thanks for the tip. Hope you are doing well.


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