6 ways to build human-centered reports that are truly actionable.

AKA why I think design is the most under-appreciated skill in BI.

Google Data Studio report designed by Cottrell Consultancy

reports are a huge opportunity to stitch your data into a compelling narrative.

I know that idea has become a bit of a cliché. Everything has to be a “narrative” these days.

But, it really is true. Putting your data to work is equal parts data science and storytelling.

Although the metrics are beautiful, and have some of context built in via trends, comparisons and hotspots, I’d still deliver it with a story that highlights the metrics that matter and fits the changes into a larger story. From Cottrell Consultancy

Tossing a few KPIs and pivot tables in a report isn’t helping anyone. It’s simply data without context. You’re essentially forcing your reader to be their own data analyst… you’re forcing them to extract meaning.

That’s not a recipe for keeping your stakeholders engaged. Anybody that has ever had to read these types of reports knows how quickly you glaze over the moment you open them. They’re tedious, they’re boring and they’re sterile.

But, what should they look like? How do you take them up a notch?

  1. Start with an outline. You are the analyst, so take a 40,000 foot view of your data and think about what kind of story it’s telling. Starting with an overarching narrative makes you a bit more inclined to build a story, as opposed to regurgitating metrics. Hold that narrative in your mind as you build out each section of your report.
  2. Find your golden thread. What is the consistent theme woven through your entire narrative? I think about this a bit like the user journey. If there’s a change in the beginning (say a spike in referrals from a certain site), follow those users all the way through your product/funnel. See how they react at every step. Are they super engaged? Do they immediately bounce? Are they using a particular feature more than others?
  3. Become a product expert. User analytics are meaningless unless you know the ins and outs of your product and your business. When you notice a drop-off on a certain page, you better know how that page works. How does it look when you aren’t logged in? Did your team recently update it? Does it function differently for different users? Pay attention. It all affects the story told by your data.
  4. Remember to keep it human. I firmly believe that analytics and design thinking should be taught together. Your users and your stakeholders are people. They aren’t computers, they aren’t all data scientists, they are humans… and that means irrationality is part of the equation. Humans like human stories. 
     — this is way easier than you’d expect because your “user” is just another human whose story you need to tell. So tell their story in terms that acknowledge them as people. “Our bounce rate increased from 70% to 75% since last week because…” is not as relatable as “When someone hits our website 1 in 4 decide they don’t want to be there and immediately leave without taking any action. That’s up from 1 in 5 than last week. So how do we get those users to click through to join, or take the time to read more of our content?
  5. Beautiful design is nothing to be ashamed of. Data scientists, analysts, and BI pros can be a bit resistant to ‘prettifying’ anything. There’s a pervasive mindset that prioritizes delivering value over making things look good (as there should be). But, the reality is that people pay attention to great visuals. Designing your reports to be engaging and downright appealing is almost as important as the content itself. Don’t be ashamed to make it look great.
  6. Empathize with your audience. This may be the most important piece of advice I can give. Your reports are useless if they speak in a language or deliver a message that your audience won’t listen to. That doesn’t mean you should be a “yes man” or even that you should dumb things down. But it does mean you should consider the needs and abilities of whoever reads your report. Don’t focus on problems that are impossible to solve. Don’t deliver ‘bad news’ without offering a viable solution (or at least knowing there could be a viable solution). Funny enough, empathizing with your reader tends to force you to focus on actionable insights. That’s key to keeping your audience engaged.

This all sounds great if your crafting your reports by hand every month. But, what if you want it automated? How do you generate a report or a dashboard that has context built right in?

That’s the holy grail of software, and there isn’t a perfect solution.

But, you can get close. By combining the right data from multiple sources and giving them context you can make the narrative as obvious as possible.

Google Data Studio report designed by Cottrell Consultancy

For example, my Google Analytics data is tied to my online presence. Whether social, blogs, search traffic, or something else entirely. So my metrics and activity are displayed side by side with the top content. The user sees what the most likely culprit is for changes in incoming traffic. It may not offer a rich narrative but right now it’s as close as we can get without a human analyst.

Building great reports is not easy, but I encourage any step in the right direction. Give context, keep the users attention, treat your readers like human beings.

So, next month what’s your report going to look like?

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