We’ve all seen them: uninspiring, black and white reports, positively crammed full of data. If they include a PivotTable or two, consider yourself lucky. These reports usually contain all the information a marketer needs to evaluate the health of their campaign or to validate their assumptions – but why is it so important for them to look good?
As consultants, we tend to be perfectionists. We pore over project deliverables to ensure they are client-ready; creating slide decks that are neat, insightful, and impactful. This amount of scrutiny and review is rarely given to data deliverables like dashboards and spreadsheets. Anything you can do to highlight key metrics that impact decision making will make your analyses more digestible to business owners, as aesthetics and spreadsheet usefulness are almost always intertwined.
Setting aside whether the data is accurate or if the right analyses were done, dashboards and spreadsheets should be polished, professional, and on-par with other deliverables. That will create immediate confidence in the report and be more likely to engage others. In this post, we’ll explain why and how to build an aesthetically interesting report.
There are two distinct reasons that someone might want to put more effort into the design and aesthetics of their reports:
First, it simply looks more professional. Adding color and contrast, with restraint, turns a boring report into something that a client will want to look at, increasing the likelihood your message hits home. For example, in a past project, I took reports generated by finance and reformatted them in a way that my client, a marketing manager, found more engaging. Sure, I also augmented it with formulas and calculations, but it was the visual ‘wow’ factor that really differentiated this report from others that she had to review.
Dressing up reports is just like plating a dish nicely – people, perhaps subconsciously, always eat with their eyes first. It’s a low-effort step that has high return on investment.
The second reason to put effort into report and dashboard aesthetics is more utilitarian. Managers and directors are busy. I’ve met a fair few who are genuinely interested in data and more than willing to spend time perusing a report, but they still face time crunches. Most want to ingest key insights as quickly as possible (especially for reports produced in a regular cadence), arming themselves with stats they can quote during their next call. Help them figure out what matters.
Here’s the same deliverable as above, but with design-thinking in mind:
So, how do we increase the attractiveness and usefulness of our spreadsheets? Use your judgment to anticipate the end user’s needs. Ask yourself what purpose each element of the report serves, and whether the person reading it will find it valuable. When creating my own reports and dashboards, these are some of the questions I ask myself:
Is a table really necessary here? Or can we substitute in a chart instead? Adding a color scale might help, but do we use default conditional formatting, ending up with a garish red-yellow-green continuum? Or do we pick and choose what to highlight using custom rules? Is a PivotTable necessary to neatly display essential metrics? Or is a single summary cell enough to highlight the bottom line?
In both cases, you should apply the same design principles you would to your visual deliverables, such as decks or documents. What that looks like within spreadsheets is only slightly different than in a slide deck. Here are some tips and tricks for tackling drab or unfocused reports:
- Use the company’s brand colors within the spreadsheet to unify it with other deliverables.
- Format elements consistently. For example, if you have a title on each tab in a spreadsheet, make sure it’s in the same cell and is the same size/font/color, etc.
- Remove gridlines wherever possible to reduce onscreen clutter. Add cell and table borders instead.
- Judiciously use color or font to draw attention to key metrics. Consider putting totals at the top of the report to eliminate the need to scroll.
- Use icons and colors to highlight gains and losses in a more visual way.
- Choose visualizations that display data in the clearest, most concise way possible.
- Create a quick summary table if the data warrants it, and only include the fields or aggregations that you know the end user needs.
- Choose table designs wisely to best display the data. For example, in a long table, alternate row banding creates separation. Or, if some fields are related, group them by color to emphasize that relationship.
- Remove data that your end user doesn’t need to see or won’t care about from the front-facing report. You can keep this in the underlying data in case they want to dive deeper.
These are only a few of the changes you can quickly implement before sharing a report. By making these changes, your reports will look more professional, and more importantly, become more useful. Your report is already insightful – don’t let your hard work go unread and underutilized because it didn’t engage your end user.
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