The Myth of Flexible Reporting

Flexibility is essential, no doubt, to navigate life and work. Yet, flexibility is not always what is needed. Take for instance this NY Times Article, Too Many Choices: A Problem That Can Paralyze, which states that when we are faced with more options we tend to shut down or make decisions against our best interest. Often times, especially when dealing with data or making decisions, more flexibility is less helpful. It actually works against us in terms of work efficiency and cognitive load. When displaying information to the everyday decision maker, offering them the single best raisin bran choice vs. a list of choices is always best.

So what does this mean for your information sharing and reporting? Does your audience really want more reports or additional download options?

The answer is no. The myth in the reporting and dashboard world is that customers need or want more analytical flexibility and data. Sure there’s always some analyst that REALLY needs it, but more likely your buyer or end user wants your guidance on how to consume the information.   More choices always feels like a good idea on the surface until you begin to see the breakdown that occurs with users when they are drowning in reports or giving your interface that deer in the headlights stare. More reporting flexibility equals more support calls, more report requests, etc.

Here are a few reasons why your users might ask for more flexible reporting options. Be aware this is a HUGE opportunity for you to demonstrate your expertise with the data and guide them down the right path.

#1 Uncertainty - Your users aren’t really sure what they plan to do with the data, don’t know the problem they plan to solve or their business direction changes so often so they figure they need flexibility. This is an opportunity to show them the value of what’s in your data and the types of problems that can be solved. Provide certainty through instruction and guidance vs. feeding the uncertainty. This is a perfect opportunity to be a hero for customers like these.

#2 - Only one Shot -  Whether real or perceived, your customer perceives they only have one shot because of project timelines or budget reasons to solve for everything they need for the next 1+ years. In this case you need to teach them to be gourmets about the data and not think of it as a Vegas buffet. Getting every last bit of data won’t solve any problems. Help them solve a specific business problem with the data, in a timely manner (weeks not months). They will then have the credibility and leverage to ask for more resources. They’ll also have you to thank for it.

#3 - Do it myself - Do it Yourself (DIY) is fine. If they’re experts on your data and you have confidence in their capabilities and ability to come up with the right interpretation then let them go. However, be careful on this one. Often times it means that they don’t trust you to explain, guide or provide them the data they need or have asked for. Be sure to probe on this.  Has it happened right after you delivered a new set of reports? There are risks here of them coming up with the wrong interpretations or worse yet, you’re just a commodity provider of data.  

The place you want to be is like a personal shopper. You recommend, guide and instruct your users to the best path for them. If you just give them the cereal aisle, you’ll only be a cashier.  

When you guide them they know you care and are taking a REAL stake in helping them. Avoid the myth of flexible reporting. Check out Juice’s design principles, specifically the ones on guidance to offer up some ideas on how to implement guidance. As always, feel free to drop us a note with your thoughts or questions at or tweet us