Data Consumers Left Out in the Cold?

What is more important, data that goes into a report or the person consuming the report?

The data often takes center stage with little thought given to the consumer. The overriding goal becomes what is the best way to present the data, and even what color the report should be. But what about those poor souls who use the report to make decisions or gain insights? How does an organization address their needs?

How do you find reports?
In any corporation I visit, there seem to be several tools in use. Some tools are specific to one department, while the entire organization access others. There are many portals and access methods. It leaves me wondering how consumers get information and even know how where to look.

If all reports are accessed through a corporate portal and each tool has a different usage method. I can see why users retreat to the safety of a spreadsheet or ask for assembled reports. It is easier than learning how to interact with a system. I wonder if once they do find a path to the data, what happens? Do they bookmark the page or screen capture the page in Evernote? Perhaps they subscribe to the report so an email reminder arrives every morning?

What does the report mean?
Some of the reports I see are poorly done. Itís not clear what question the report is trying to answer. The data visualizations are cool rather than insightful. Bubble plots come to mind as an example. Hans Rosling used the technique effectively for his TED Talk. However, when used for the wrong reason, it's just a confusing mess. What do consumers think when they see these report elements?

You can glance at some reports to surmise the report builder didnít understand the consumer. Perhaps the report builder was expecting a certain level of competence. One report builder told me that everyone would know [insert-your-favorite-statistical-trend] meant. It was hard to believe that statement. The second requirement was a button that allowed the consumer to view the data in a spreadsheet. Why was the button needed? So the consumers could do their own independent analysis. Perhaps the report was nothing more than a fancy ETL tool.

Consider the consumers new to a job. I wonder how they learn to use a poorly-designed dashboard. I see many dashboards gauges on reports but without any text to explain when it means in a red state. Itís not clear what should happen. Many lack supporting charts around the gauges to help the consumer understand what to do next. Is running down the hall screaming the appropriate response or perhaps just keep an eye on it?

Is there a solution?
Iím not sure what solutions to offer. It depends on the organization. Some organizations have better standards. Their reports provide counting rules. The dashboard gauges have clear text with supporting charts. They insist on formal adoption methods to ensure understanding and usage. Some organizations go further and provide training to consumers on KPIs and basic statistical methods. All seem like a reasonable way to invest in a data-driven company.

What do you think? Has your organization faced this situation? What advice would you have for a new enterprise in this situation?

Tricia Aanderud, Senior SAS Consultant for Zencos

Tricia Aanderud, Director, Data Visualization Practice at Zencos Consulting, provides SAS Consulting services to organizations that need assistance understanding how to transform their data into meaningful reports and dashboards. She has co-authored three books with her most recent title "Introduction to SAS Visual Analytics". She regularly shares data visualization tips and SAS knowledge through her BI Notes blog ( Tricia has a background in technical writing, process engineering, and customer service. She has been an enthusiastic SAS user since 2002 and has presented papers at the SAS Global Forum and other industry conferences.

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Re: On the same page
  • 6/30/2016 3:58:14 AM

@TAanderud I come from a communications background myself. While I've pursued it as a career, some classmates of mine have chosen other paths, but remain grateful for their education. Rarely is there a job these days where communicating isn't crucial. It's so important, even in the most technical of professions.

Re: On the same page
  • 6/30/2016 3:53:04 AM

I appreciate an analyst who is also a teacher- someone who shares their knowledge, can guide the end user through new thought processes, and listen to what the user is trying to accomplish with the report and then walk them through the process.

Indeed, the best market research presentation I attended felt much like a good day in the classroom. The presentor laid out the findings so logically, like a teacher imparting something truly meaningful and relevant. I don't think every analyst could pull that off but there should at least be one person in the team who's talented in this area.

Re: On the same page
  • 6/29/2016 5:26:58 PM

Right, some data presentations seem intended as artwork. Some others seem to have been afterthoughts, something that the analyst rushed through after doing what they consider the hard work (the analysis). I think in both cases there can be an attitude that any fool can understand what they are showing.

Re: On the same page
  • 6/29/2016 4:05:27 PM

It does seem some charts and graphic are designed as actually a piece or art to fill the space, whether intentionally to fill space at the last moment or as a consequence of not asking what the intended reader wants to know and how best to present it to them.

Re: On the same page
  • 6/21/2016 12:11:35 PM

@Lyndon Like I told Jim ... that was a dataviz expert.




Re: On the same page
  • 6/21/2016 11:12:10 AM


Tricia writes

I find the clever method of presenting it wins out a lot.  It's one thing I really hate about Excel - it allows the user to create some of the craziest things I have ever seen. 
Here's one of my favorites ... 


Ugh ... Using a pie graph to display dates? That's gotta be one of the most inappropriate uses of a pie graph I've ever seen ...

And the color-coding for the different drugs (?) is so confusing (hard to distinguish) as to be just about useless ...


Re: Visualizing Orlando
  • 6/21/2016 10:50:33 AM

That had to be a difficult piece to assemble.

Visualizing Orlando
  • 6/21/2016 10:03:57 AM

Tricia. This one isn't about data so much as it's about people and terror. It shows some of what happened in Pulse. Nice work by the Tampa Bay Times staff.

Re: On the same page
  • 6/21/2016 9:59:33 AM

Are you describing the movie Idiocracy?

Warrning .... some cursing in this clip:

Re: On the same page
  • 6/21/2016 9:55:49 AM

Yes.  Even better than that - the whole point of that post was that they were data visualization experts!   :-)

You know I had to tuck that screenshot away in my "examples" file.


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