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5 questions to ask yourself if you want report automation

As time goes on, we all have more and more data at our fingertips. However, what you do with it can sometimes be a difficult decision. One practical solution is to automate reports so that other users of the data can become familiar with a format where they can extrapolate the information that is important to them.

There are many scenarios – for example, you might want to deliver a report to each branch of your business or you may need to provide different key results to the CEO, but more detailed information for others working directly with customers in sales or customer service.

At MRDC, we work with companies in research, marketing and customer care, but the principles we apply to our work are appropriate in many other sectors.

1.Online or offline

Online reports are always accessible

The first consideration is whether you want reports online or offline – or, of course, both. Online reporting systems tend to be far more expensive than reports produced in PowerPoint, Excel, Word or as PDF files. Online systems tend to be less flexible. If you want to make a change, it may be more expensive than you expect. However, there is a great convenience to online reporting – it will available 24 hours a day and accessible from anywhere in the world.

Offline is cheaper and can provide more information

Reports in MS Office, PDFs or some other electronic form are generally cheaper and can contain a lot of information. A typical user of such a report will soon get used to finding the information he or she needs. With an online system, the navigation through the system will tend to be more rigid and may suit some users but be time consuming for others to use even if the system is well designed.

Interactive reports have to be online

If you need to slice and dice your data, so that, for example, you can look at females, aged between 40-60 with an above average income, it’s likely that you will need an online system. By their very nature, offline reports are static, although MRDC offers some good desktop products such as Reflect, Snap and QPSMR so that you can analyse data on your desktop.

Do you need to download information?

A further consideration with an online system is whether users want the ability to download information to take to a meeting or to compare information on paper etc.

2.How much detail works best?

The tendency is to provide too much information

The next question to ask yourself is how much detail do you need? There’s a tendency to supply too much information, which may well overwhelm your audience. Online reporting systems that have too many tabs or routes that you can go through tend to be underutilised. Sometimes, it is hard to put together a system that suits everyone.

Offline reports are fixed in terms of content, but users can soon become familiar with ignoring parts of reports that are irrelevant to them. Too much detail is less of a problem unless it is poorly organised and not in logical ‘chapters’ or sections.

Find out what users really want

Generally, we find that there is a tendency for our clients to give users too much data – the ‘just in case’ approach. It is worth doing some research to find out what users really want before embarking on a report automation project. Of course, providing too little information makes the report uninteresting and might tell the user nothing more than he or she knows already, but, at least, with too little information, you tend to find out from user feedback.

3.Design yourself or designed by the supplier

Who should do the design work?

You know what you want in your reports, but designing it takes time. Our advice generally is this: if you want an online system, let us design it for you, but, if you want an offline automated reporting system, you should design it yourself.

What looks good?

Let me explain why. We all have our own opinions of what looks good and what doesn’t look good. When you are delivering information online, it is important that there is a logical flow to the online dashboard system whereas with a PDF document, for example, it has a beginning, a middle and an end. There is an expertise to organising an online system whereas a document will essentially be your own opinion. That’s not to say we can’t help or advise or make suggestions for improvement, but document appearance is quite subjective.

It’s a matter of cost as well

We have been in situations where we have designed PowerPoint reports, for example, for a customer, which they approve until it is time for final delivery and they then decide on multiple changes at the last minute. Now, this is not an attempt to make you feel sorry us, but just to explain the reality that minor changes can be more expensive than they might appear. When the reporting is online, you have to approve the design before the programming takes place and need our expertise.

4.Do you need different reports for different users?

Different users may need a different depth of information

One thing that complicates report automation is the need to provide different reports to different users. This might be because certain information is not applicable to certain users – perhaps, your German office does not sell a particular product, so a part of the report is suppressed or presented differently. It might be that senior management only require high level information while other staff might need detail for their job.

Why do reporting options cost so much?

Generally, providing different reporting options, both online and offline, are not usually particularly expensive to program. What takes a lot of time is checking all of the permutations. Let’s say, you have 5 options with two choices, that is, in practice, 32 different variations which may have to be tested and checked. Do you need all of the options? Is there a better way to present the information? These are questions you need to consider.

5.Methods of distributing reports

Security is always important

Whether your reports are online or offline, distributing logins to an online system or reports for an offline system will need some level of security. There’s a lot to consider here and it’s not for this blog article, but you need to consider how sensitive the data is and how it is best to distribute or allow access to this information.

Do you have a system for distributing reports?

At the most basic level, you can email your electronic reports to the users. This is not too onerous if there are 5 reports to distribute, but if there are 500, you will surely want a distribution system. Whether this is carried out by your supplier or yourself will need to be considered.

Increasingly, we are finding that our customers are collecting their reports from a download system using a login and password that we provide, but this may not be for you. IT departments of bigger companies can have their own procedures that may need to be adhered to.

Where can MRDC help?

We are experienced in all types of reporting in a number of sectors, although our background is in market research, marketing and customer satisfaction. We rarely accept design work for Excel or PowerPoint reports as we believe our clients have to decide what they want. However, suggesting ideas on how you can improve your reports and putting together ways of making your online reporting systems lively, interesting and fully utilised is where we offer expertise. If you need any free help, please contact phil.hearn@mrdcsoftware.com.

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Phil Hearn
Author: Phil Hearn - Date posted: 2 May 2016
Category: automated-reporting - Tags: automated, dashboard, powerpoint, excel, pdf, reports

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