Reporting tools are easy to come by; a huge spectrum of providers offer widely varying types of tools with a huge range of functionality. Interpreting business information - "business intelligence" - plays a very important role in modern business, where ever-increasing volumes of data have led to a focus on efficient interpretation to make intelligent and insightful decisions. The following list of four key points to consider is far from exhaustive, but should help newcomers to shape thinking and define selection criteria:

  1. Requirements
    You first need to understand your users and how they need to consume information in order to take effective action. A few key aspects:
    1. Delivery
      Do the reports need to be hosted on the web, hosted internally, emailed, printed? How will users receive and consume the information contained within?
    2. User Experience
      Do the users need to see a static picture which represents a point in time? Do they need to interact with the report to explore the data further? What level of the detail to they need to access? How will they best understand what the information is telling them, enabling appropriate action
    3. Users
      How many do you have? Do they all need the same picture or varying levels of detail? Are your users Data Pioneers or Data Settlers, or what is the mix? How will different audiences react to data - will some (settlers) gain a headline picture, and then ask others (pioneers) to explore further?
  2. Price
    Full-blown Business Intelligence ("BI") systems can be expensive, and many smaller businesses will find it hard to justify the initial investment; be careful to cost the "total cost of ownership", looking beyond software (and server, where applicable) and considering the external help you may need to implement, train and tackle initial deployment.

    Business cases can be hard to formulate when the ROI is hard to define, but you don’t necessarily need a massive level of complexity in your reporting to identify where money can be saved – focus on getting the right information, to the right people, in order to drive action; the defining question is "Who will do what, based on this information?"

  3. Key Features
    Many users are used to seeing their data in a specific format, using particular visualisations. Therefore, it is important that you are happy that your preferred tool(s) can provide the right visual style for your users. However, it’s important to 'think outside of the box'; just because data has always been represented in a certain way does not mean that was the most effective or efficient way. 

    Much of our work concentrates on helping people use visual representations in the most effective manner to aid rapid understanding and genuine insight. There is a massive amount of discussion around how data should be visualised (that’s a whole other blog entry, or more likely many entries at some point), so resist the temptation to recreate an existing report exactly as it is simply because that is how people are used to seeing it - challenging the status quo can be very rewarding, when new insight is uncovered within existing data.

  4. Data Source(s)
    This will have a big impact on what tool you choose as there is no point picking a tool which cannot connect to your data source.  Beware of solutions which claim to connect to your data, but fail to make it clear that there is an additional charge.  How much data a tool can comfortably handle should also be a consideration – the best report in the world will soon be forgotten if a user has to sit and wait for too long for it to open or update.

We have only touched on some of the most fundamental considerations in this short post, but hopefully this gets you thinking along the right lines when faced with the potentially daunting task of choosing a reporting tool.  We are happy to advise on not only what tool might suit your needs, but also what specific considerations should be made to suit your environment. Our starting point is to find out more about you, your business and the intended reporting audience - from there we can start to make more specific recommendations and assist you in improving the value you get from your data. 

Beyond "reporting", our real expertise lies in Visual Analytics - we have recently added a Product Comparison page providing a simple overview of the three main tools we use; Omniscope, QlikView and Tableau. 

AuthorGuy Cuthbert