Five Simple Steps to Designing Great Reports

Databases are built to store data that may be useful to somebody who owns or uses that data. Data becomes information when it is presented in a format that is useful to a viewer. There are many ways to convert data into information, and the most common one is to create a report. A report organizes data in a list so that it is useful for a specific purpose. For example, sales data can be organized to discover trends in sales, rank salespeople, or find out which company promotions are generating the most income. As FileMaker consultants, database designers, and web developers, it is rare when we build a database that is not at some point used to create a report. In this article, I will describe a 5-step process for making report design simple and efficient.

1. Know What Information You Need

The first step in creating a report is knowing what information you need. Ask yourself the following questions:

     • What is the purpose of this report? What would I like to know?

     • Who will need to see this report?

     • How will the information on this report be used by each person or group that will see it?

2. Determine the Data that will be Listed on the Report

Now it's time to design your report. Use the answers to the questions in step 1 to design the layout of your report. Ask yourself:

     • What data needs to be listed on your report in order for it to achieve its purpose?

     • Does the list of data need to be aggregated, grouped and/or sorted in a particular way? If so, what groups, sorts, and aggregated calculations are needed?

3. Sketch a Sample Report

Sometimes there's no substitute for a visual check. Validate what you've determined in steps 1 and 2 by sketching your report on a piece of paper, word processor, spreadsheet, or your favorite graphic layout tool. You may find that you left something out in steps 1 and 2. If so, rinse and repeat until you have the sample report of your dreams.

4. Ensure the Appropriate Data is Being Collected

Collecting the appropriate data means making sure your database is modeled and designed properly. Questions to ask your database designer are:

     • Is my database storing the data I need for the report I want?

     • Is my database structured properly, in a way that I can use the stored data to create the report I want?

This step requires a knowledge of good database modeling and design, and that topic is too big to even summarize here. If you don't know much about data modeling, you can read some good articles on the subject online, or ask someone with expertise in database software design (like us!) to determine whether your database is structured properly for what you need. 

5. Create Your Report

Use your sample report to create a layout using whatever technology you are using to present data from your database to the people who need your report. Some examples of such technology are: a web page built with PHP and MySQL; a content management system like Drupal; or a database software platform like FileMaker Pro. 

Reports are an important and useful tool to help you understand your business and assist your decision-making processes. Be sure that your reports stay simple, effective, and purposeful using the guidelines above. If you think you need more tools, hints, or guidance when designing your reports or databases, don't hesitate to contact us for help!