Coloring with numbers – Can data present a better picture? Time to bring sexy back!

With the rise of self-service reporting, is just presenting the data enough? Or is how information is presented just as impactful as to what is being presented?

As people are becoming increasingly exposed to data visualization through infographics, digital dashboards, and interactive websites, there is a growing expectation that information is presented in a visually coherent and aesthetic manner. People are becoming trained to skim read what is displayed on a screen versus in-depth reading that traditionally occurred with information presented on paper.

A 2005 study by Ziming Liu of San Jose University looked at how reading behavior had changed over the previous ten years from paper to screen and found exactly this pattern.

“The screen‐based reading behavior is characterized by more time spent on browsing and scanning, keyword spotting, one‐time reading, non‐linear reading, and reading more selectively, while less time is spent on in‐depth reading, and concentrated reading. Decreasing sustained attention is also noted.” Liu summarised.

Perceivably, there is limited time for a digital report to grab a reader’s focus and impart the requisite information.

So with this in mind how do we ensure we are delivering information clearly to the report reader?

Before we start designing our report, there are three main areas to establish an understanding for that will influence the report design; audience, function, and presentation.

  1. Audience – who is this information intended for? Without a good grasp on this understanding, we can fail in producing a report that addresses the need and ensures clarity of message.
  2. Function – what is the purpose of this report? Knowing the expectation of use of the report helps in ensuring the right information is used and represented to the reader.
  3. Presentation – how is the report to be displayed? There is an ever-increasing number of portals in which information can be displayed; paper, mobile screens, large format displays. While one report design may work for one particular presentation method, it doesn’t mean it will automatically work for another.

Identifying answers to these key areas will help us to focus and increase the success with which our report is interpreted.

We’ve already noted that our audience is spending less and less time actually reading information and even less time interpreting it. Generally, an audience is expecting a report to provide an answer to a question.

How much of our product did we sell last month?

What were my child’s grades for each of their subjects?

What is the temperature forecast for the next week?

The audience doesn’t want to have to perform their own exploration of the data to find the answer to the question that brought them to the report in the first instance. It is our role as the report designer to perform this on their behalf and to visualize this information as clearly and succinctly as possible for them.

Once the audience has found the answer to their initial question, they will either absorb this information and move on or immediately want to apply this new information to other scenarios to assist with further decision making.

What would happen to our revenue from the sale of our product if we had raised or lowered the price?

Were my child’s grades reasonable compared to the rest of the class?

Will I need to take an umbrella this week?

These additional questions aren’t normally identified in the initial discovery phase when trying to understand the requirements of the report as they won’t have been conceptualized until the initial answer is presented and the context will be different depending on who’s consuming the report. It’s in trying to offer the capability to provide answers to these unrealized questions as quickly and clearly as possible to the audience is where the true art of self-service report design is realized.

So now we have a presumably impossible task of providing answers to questions that don’t exist while making sure information is clearly presented, easily interpreted and visually appealing.

How do we achieve this?

There are some principles of the design of reports that I have found to be quite useful to assist with the design process:

  1. Storyboard the report – Try and find the “story” within the information. What is trying to be said? Where does it start and where does it finish? This will help in understanding the context of the information within a report, outline potential ways the data could be used, alternative questions that could be asked and identify any relationship between the data being visualized.
  2. Assign visualizations – Choose relevant visuals to portray the information as coherently and succinctly as possible. It isn’t just as simple as having any visualization to display the information as you have to ensure the capabilities support the three influencers of audience, function, and presentation.
  3. Define user experience – Critical to ensuring the audience can find and interpret the information that is being presented. To do this effectively requires thought behind –
    • Navigation – Decide how the report reader will move through the report to find the information they require with as little resistance as possible, but also don’t discount enabling the explorative value in your design as this may also be how hidden information is brought to their attention creating new and insightful knowledge.
    • Layout – Identify where visualizations and navigations are placed to enhance the user experience. Clarity and brevity are important. Remove anything that isn’t enhancing your story or offering benefit to the audience.
    • Colour – Colour plays an important role in both clarity and engagement with a report. By utilizing color effectively information can be enhanced and importance highlighted. It can also allow the audience to form an emotive attachment ensuring better interpretation of the information presented. But also keep in mind that color is highly subjective and can be responded to differently by different audiences.
  4. Iteration – A report is a dynamic entity and needs to be constantly honed against needs and requirements. It can be consistently improved with the addition of further input from users, change in visualizations and datasets. Recognise the thought and effort you put into the report but don’t become emotionally invested in it as when you release it in front of an audience, they will be the ones who will ultimately decide whether it is right for them or not. So be prepared to accept critique and take it into consideration when iterating your report.

In the coming weeks, I will be working through each of these principles with an example to help illustrate how each can be effectively utilized. I hope you enjoy the journey with me.

Ziming Liu, “Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years”, Journal of Documentation, Vol. 61 Iss: 6, pp.700 – 712

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