For many of us who work in data analytics for long time, you may notice that producing great data reports and dashboards alone doesn’t always generate desired outcomes. Why? Because data reports and dashboards are usually exploratory by nature and self-service oriented. In addition, they usually don’t have rich text to explain why certain charts and data points are meaningful in what context, not mentioning the usual lack of graphical elements that make data fun and interesting to read.
This doesn’t mean that we should all start to add more text and more graphical elements to our reports and dashboards. In fact, overly doing so could potentially obstruct the exploratory and self-service nature of data reports and dashboards. For this reason, many teams adopt a multiform data production and communication strategy: Produce data reports and dashboards for exploration and self-service monitoring, and then proactively complement them with other insight communication and storytelling forms such as infographics, short data graphical stories, data newsletters, or in-person data insight briefings. The former provides data exploration and discovery tools, and the latter drives meaning, insights, stories, connections, and results.
Bear in mind that we discuss data reports and dashboards in functional terms rather than technical terms. For example, data reports can be produced in Excel or Power Bi desktop, and data dashboard can be produced in Power BI desktop or Power BI services. The key is that they possess the functions and characteristics described below.
Data reports – focus on common questions, exploratory, and self-service oriented
Data reports usually consist of multiple tabs of data arranged by topic areas. Rather than answering specific questions, data reports address common questions users would ask about their businesses. In addition, they also enable users to slice, dice, and drill down for further details. A good data report defines the common questions very well, meaning that they are not purely visualizing what is in the data, but rather they are carefully selecting and arranging the visuals to ensure that the common questions are answered in the main views. Most reports range 3- 7 tabs. Too much can become overwhelming, and two little can seem too thin to provide rich information. Slicers are icings on the cake, so it is good practice to only provide meaningful slicers on each tab rather than putting every possible dimension there.
Below is a well-designed data report example: three tabs, each tab focus on specific topic areas such as Seattle’s building permit climate, contactor competition, and permit category growth. All data charts are nicely selected and arranged into these three topic areas. By just looking at these three tabs, we can obtain a basic understand on this subject, plus capacity to explore with thoughtfully selected slicers. In addition, this report also has great titles and headers to guide us through the reading process. There are still room for improvement though – feel free to use your imaginations and judgements. Click here to see the live view.
Data dashboards - high level, more breath, less depths, great for progress tracking and performance monitoring
Data dashboard is a favorite among executives and managers who desire to have a glance view over all their metrics quickly. Rather than arranging data charts on different tabs plus rich slicing and drill down capacities, data dashboard displays the most important metrics all at the same page with minimum slicing and drill-down capacities. Data dashboards are usually more effective when success or alarm indicators are displayed. This way, executives can quickly detect what he or she needs to pay attention after opening up the dashboard.
Infographics and short data graphic stories – informative, high-level, and visually compelling data overviews or stories, great for driving broad awareness of a subject or sparking audience’s interest to learn more
Imagine you work in an area most people are not familiar with, such as Carbon Budget as in below example. Infographics and short data graphic stories are fun ways to inform and educate a broad range of audience on a subject. In addition, it can also be used as a marketing tool to promote your heavy-lifting data reports and dashboards. Below is an infographic example. You can also click here to see 40 interesting infographic examples online.
Another form of graphical data storytelling can be done in Power BI desktop. Below is an example about global warming. Click here to see the live version.
Data newsletters – focus on insight briefing, great for driving deeper data understanding with broad audience
Data newsletter is another common form of data communication. It can be long or short, single topic or multiple topics. The focus is to pick out insights from various sources (reports, dashboards, or other sources), and wave them into meaningful written stories. Often, the process of writing a data newsletter can help you think through business problems, arguments, and insights much more systematically, which you can leverage to improve your reports and dashboards. Data newsletter is a great way to communicate your insights, results, and keep your audience informed on what’s new. Below example is from Seattle bubble real estate data blog.
In-person data briefings: powerful combination of insights, arguments, data, stories, and conversations, great for driving actions from a specific audience group
In-person data insight briefing is by far the most powerful tool for analysts to exert impact. Use it with care though. It needs careful planning and preparation. What are your meeting goals? What are your top three arguments? What actions are you trying to drive? Do you have enough data to support your argument? Have you sent out pre-read? Have you set a limit on your talk and leave enough time for conversations and discussions? How will you follow up on the action times after the meeting? Looking for inspirations? Check out Bill Gate’s Ted talk ‘The next outbreak? We are not ready’ where he brought data to life by waving them into fun and meaningful propositions.
Establish a multiform data production and communication strategy
Each form of data production and communication has advantages and disadvantages. The trick is to understand each one of them and choose the right form at the right occasion. In my view, it is important to establish a multiform data production and communication strategy for each major data project. If you can’t do it all, find a partner, or propose this to your team.