In part 1 we discussed information types. In this part we’re going to discuss probably the single most important aspect of any reporting design project – understanding the needs of the users.
The purpose of any report or information visualization is to move from data to doing – the information needs to be communicated in a way that the reader understands, and is prompted to act upon.
Creating a high-paced session around information needs with the project team is a good way of starting a reporting project. Often people will bring into the project assumptions and this part will help them question whether these hold.
Who needs the information that you are going to report?
At this stage you want to identify everyone who has a need for the information about the process or situation that you want to communicate. The list should be as extensive as possible.
Why do they need the information?
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your report will be so great that people will eagerly await every new edition. Viewers will view your report if, and only if, it helps them achieve their objectives.
Understanding the motivation behind wanting information, what they want to understand, what actions it could motivate is central to turning a report from something they may glance at (or even ignore) to something which provides real value and is worth reading.
What information do they need?
Obviously all of these elements are interlinked and you’ll start to get an understanding of what information could be needed by understanding why the need it. Our experience is that many people are quite poor an identifying and communicating what information that they need but if you understand what information could change (or reinforce) their decisions you’ll start to see what information you’ll need to present.
When do they need it?
Information is best presented when it is needed. For some users this might mean available throughout the day, for others (eg human capital metrics in the annual report) it could be needed once a year.
How do they want it?
Interactive reporting which allows visual exploration of data is probably the most effective way of communicating patterns in large data sets and therefore IT and the vendors focus on delivering feature-rich solutions that enable this approach (usually without any real understanding data and visual perception).
As anyone who has spent time around certain stakeholder groups will know, this is not a solution which many users want. Senior management will often review reports whilst travelling or away from main systems. For these groups concise printed reports best match the way they want to work.
It’s worth defining these for each possible user group as a team before prioritising which groups you’re going to focus on. The benefits of working this way is that you might find that you can deliver value to low-priority groups with little on no extra effort.
After the team has conducted the exercise you then need to go to the main stakeholder groups and validate and elaborate on the information that you’ve captured. Rarely will the project group get it right first time.
In the next article we’ll address how to construct the information, how to provide context and develop meaning.