Like an overcooked steak, reporting can be dry, bland, and not particularly easy to digest. A typical example delivers the goods in a simple table and shows trends as a percentage change from the previous month or year.
"data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics." Whereas the typical chart is designed to show as much data as possible, and is set off from the flow of text, sparklines are intended to be succinct, memorable, and located precisely where appropriate.
Check out how we can embed a tiny trending line into this same report:
Now with a quick scan, you can get a sense for the trend over the last 12 months. Bringing Sparklines from concept to reality is a Excel add-in put together by Andreas Flockermann of BonaVista Systems. His MicroCharts tool lets report-makers create these little graphics; any recipient can view the images as long as they have installed a free MicroCharts font. Here are a few example of the types of charts you can make:
I spent a little time playing with his beta version and found it fairly intuitive. There is a chart format dialog box that helps you set various dimension including scale, colors, and reference lines. Like all charting in Excel, it takes some playing around to really understand how to control the result.
Andreas says he started his new company to "help users to create better, richer reports with more information per square inch than integrates well into Microsoft technology." It is a worthy goal.