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Good reporting is boring

Appearance is not everything – in information design, at least. Forget multiple colors, 3D views, speedometers and hyperactive interfaces. It’s the content that makes reports really exiting, especially when their structure helps portray key messages quickly, clearly and compactly.

The science of reporting

Reporting is an interdisciplinary task, combining management accounting, software design, data visualization, charts and databases with physiological, organizational and management skills. This diversity is what makes “good” reporting so difficult. First, you need to identify the experts in these distinct fields, study what they have to say and then attempt to leverage their combined knowledge. In fact, it will probably take decades until the best concepts prevail, as their subtle messages are often lost in the general commotion of day-to-day business.

Viva la table!

Edward Tufte, an advocate of visualizing data with the highest possible information density, is a prime example. Through his teachings, we have come to realize that compact tables, i.e. the “old-fashioned” way of presenting business data, aren’t so bad after all. They allow us to make multiple comparisons in a relatively small amount of space, often taking less than a single page to characterize an entire division in detail. Charts, on the other hand, have limited space, so the time intervals displayed in them are often reduced to the point where it is impossible to make a valid comparison. Most legends are poorly made. Colors and forms often need to be translated to decipher what is being shown. And let’s face it. Even when the charts are well-made and we invest the time to study them, how often do we still long for the actual numbers?

Plain Jane tables are still popular among tax advisers, stock brokers, bankers and CFOs. Why? These people are interested in information and not entertainment. In fact, if you ask, they would probably even prefer just the numbers themselves – black on white.
Graphic designers, software engineers and marketing professionals, however, argue that tables are boring, impersonal, unemotional and anything but sexy. They prefer bright, multicolored, hyperactive, 3D dashboards in racing designs. Many business professionals will even agree with them, but 9 times out of 10 these people rarely – if ever – have to make important decisions based on numbers. The executive ladder, however, is neither colorful nor flashy. And even the most successful Business Intelligence software vendors will admit (behind closed doors) that their systems don’t always reach the C-level crowd.

How can less information be more?

Many concepts, most of which are very colorful, are often defended with an uncompromising “less is more”. But honestly, only someone who views the wonderful diversity of the modern world with complexity and confusion can get excited about that. Others, however, view complexity as an opportunity and a wealth of possibilities waiting to be mastered. These are the people who also long for maximum information density per reported page and concise presentations that justify a grad school degree and don’t produce more questions than answers after a moment’s thought.

The ultimate role reversal for man, machine and paper

Good visualizations – and ultimately good reports – are printed on paper, because despite all IT advancements the resolution of a printout is still 10 times better than that of a computer screen. Anyone who takes the limitations of computer screens and overhead projectors as a reference for his work will take the one page of information that he has to say, chop it up into bite-size pieces and transform it into a minimum of 20 monotonous PowerPoint slides. The interaction can have its benefits, when the narrator gets off to a good start. But the fact that report recipients can retrieve the required information themselves, shouldn’t lead us into the temptation of reducing an initial financial storyboard into one endless, slow-motion sequence.

Back to the future: embedding charts in tables

Nevertheless, charts and interactivity will still play an important role in the future design of data-dense reports. They surpass pure tables by quickly signalizing relative sizes and trends to the human eye. Taking a step back to integrate charts into tables is perhaps the key for the future of reporting. Stay tuned!