Some Thoughts on Report Usability

A usable report meets a specific need, clearly presenting the facts in a way that’s appropriate for the user’s context.

As an analyst you’re an arbiter of facts and the context necessary to understand those facts. — Unknown

Meets a specific need

To make a usable report, we have to understand its purpose. What is the business need we’re trying to address? What problem are we trying to solve? When we get report requests, often we’re told very little about the problem to be solved and the business context in which it’ll be used. We need to ask for clarity. Often, what they need is not at all what we thought they were asking for. Sometimes what they need is not a report at all.

Clearly presents the facts

A good visualization should present the information clearly, efficiently, and accurately.

Things to think about:

  • How can I convey the information quickly? Use the simplest visualization that conveys the data clearly and efficiently.
  • Use appropriate scales (start at zero!) and labels to make sure you don’t misrepresent the data.
  • Make it visually clean and eliminate distractions like grid lines, 3D effects, borders, backgrounds—anything that doesn’t serve to convey information
  • Give enough context to interpret the data appropriately (e.g., a dashboard that shows more than one related visualization)

Bend or break these guidelines only if doing so serves a purpose for the user.

Appropriate for the user’s context

Also consider how and in what situations the report will be used. Will the user be at their desk, relaxed, and taking the time to digest and understand a lot of information? Or will they be on the go and need a specific answer quickly? Who is the target audience, and what kinds of tools and visual presentation feel most familiar and natural to them (e.g., Excel for financial analysts)?

A usable report meets the need effectively and efficiently, in a way that’s appropriate to the user’s situation.

Other things to consider:

  • Navigation - how will the user find the right report, and how will they know it’s the right one?
  • Familiarity and consistency - is the information presented in a way that’s familiar and consistent with other reports?


Up next Yachats Sunset Meta Work Meta Work is my term for everything from leadership strategies to individual GTD and PKM workflows—the stuff that transcends any particular domain of work.
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