Operational reports may be the workhorses of the BI world, but there’s no reason your tables can’t look as sleek and professional as your data visualizations. A few well-executed rules of thumb can take a tabular report from clunky to crisp in just a few clicks, but it saves time to know what you want before you ever even touch the data.
Below is a companion piece to the Dashboard Design Cheat Sheet we published a few months ago, this one devoted to report design. It was inspired by a client of ours who, after seeing the dashboard guide, reached out to request something similar for reports! Use these best practices to plan, design, and refine your tables so that they communicate clearly and look good doing it.
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Infographic Text: Report Design Cheat Sheet
- Include only necessary detail. If the report is too long, consider applying filters to narrow the output.
- Use conditional formatting to draw attention to trends and irregularities in the data.
- Place subtotals in group footers and grand totals in report footers.
- Place charts and visualizations in the footer corresponding to the data they contain.
- If distributing the report in HTML format, consider making additional detail available through drilldowns.
- Sort the report in a manner that would be most intuitive and useful to the intended audience.
- Place the date and time in a report or page header/footer so readers know how fresh the data is.
- Keep readers informed by including a report summary that lists which sorts and filters have been applied.
- Suppress any rows or columns used strictly for calculation so that they do not appear in the report output.
- If a group’s detail section spans more than one page, set the group header to repeat at the top of each page for easy reference.
- Place page number and owner/copyright information in the page footer or page header sections.
- Place the report title in the report header section.
- Be sure to include units and currency symbols where applicable.
- Align currency and other numeric values to the right. Align text values to the left unless they’re in languages read from the right.
- Apply color sparingly. Rely more on shades than on hues.
- Use color to draw attention to important values and to make it easier to navigate the report.
- Indent subgroups or apply other styling to make the report easier to scan.
- Go without gridlines if your columns and rows are already easily distinguished from one another.
- If using gridlines, make them lighter than your report detail for a cleaner look.
- Show row totals in the rightmost column and column totals in the bottommost row for a given group or subgroup.
- If emphasizing row totals, consider going without vertical gridlines. If emphasizing column totals, consider going without row gridlines.
- Consider colorblind viewers and adjust accordingly.
- Avoid using green and red in your report unless they are meant to signify good and bad respectively.
- If distributing the report in document format, consider how many columns will comfortably fit on each page.
- Try alternate row shading instead of gridlines.
- Make sure all dates, numbers, and currencies are correctly formatted.
- Run the report periodically to see how the changes you’ve made appear in the output.
- Squint at the report from a short distance and notice which elements stand out. Is it easy to discern the report’s structure?
- Ask a colleague to locate a few figures or data points in the report. Were they easy or difficult to find?
- Test the report on a member of the intended audience. Do they find any part of it confusing or incomplete?