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  • Steve Hulmes

Why modern analytics software may actually hinder your analysts...



As the desire for insight and analytics has grown exponentially over the last 10 years, so has the capability and range of solutions available to organisations to produce the reports and analytics they seek. The sophistication and power of modern software now enables analysts to produce reports and visualisations more quickly and efficiently than ever before – however, do they necessarily improve the quality of outputs?


My answer to that is simple – ‘no’.


It may be possible to go from detailed data to a chart or report within a few clicks (only, of course , if your data is set up to take advantage of these capabilities!). But this ability to produce outputs nearly instantaneously can cause the analyst to lose the focus needed to deliver impactful reports and analyses.


Firstly, the myriad of different ways that are offered to display data can muddy the analyst’s mind and leave them leaning towards style over substance and over-complicating their outputs e.g using spider diagrams when standard, familiar charts such as bar charts are often more readable and impactful.


Secondly, and most importantly, the high functionality of these applications can result in the analyst bypassing a considered thought process as to how best to design and present their report or analysis in a way which will engage and effectively inform the end users.


Let me explain further.


Once an analyst has had their head buried in the detail of the data they’ve been poring over to provide the basis of any analysis or report, the idea of consciously designing their final outputs can often be overlooked because all they have to do is throw the data into one of these powerful applications and very quickly they can throw out charts and tables without blinking or thinking. The problem is that this leads to the analyst focussing on what they ‘can’ produce rather than what they ‘should’ produce. It’s essentially a bottom-up approach to report design and very often leads to incoherent, unintuitive and confusing outputs that don’t help answer the core questions that the stakeholders want answers to.


Now don’t get me wrong, I think some of the software we now have available is incredible and there’s no doubt has the potential to improve the productivity of a team but it can lead to a ‘lazy’ approach to report design. Some of the functionality these packages provide are great for ‘exploring’ data but they are not necessarily great for presenting the data in an impactful way. Take pivot tables, for example – these are great for quickly slicing and dicing data but are not good for the final presentation of data. Often analysts will put too much information in a pivot table, too many variables and if used to present their findings, can then leave stakeholders scratching their heads as they unable to take away any clear messages.


One way to produce more intuitive, robust reports that will hit the mark for stakeholders is to employ a hierarchical, ‘top down’, needs-based approach to output design. This encourages analysts to step back from their keyboard before they start producing outputs. Essentially, there are three key steps:-


i) Brainstorm and record all the potential questions you feel the stakeholder may want answering through the report/analysis and also consider any ‘value-add’ questions the stakeholder may not have thought of.


ii) Develop tables and charts to directly answer these questions – don’t try and answer them all in one table or chart and risk compromising the insight you are trying to deliver.


iii) Organise and display the final results in a hierarchical and connected way with the highest level of information (the ‘scene-setter’) being the first table/chart you show at the top of the report.


This is a methodology I share with participants in my ‘Impactful Reporting’ workshop in which they get a chance to put these steps into practice – this ‘top down’ approach, which begins with the stakeholder needs rather than the data, delivers significantly improved solutions that demonstrate the analyst’s commercial awareness and results-orientated focus.


Whilst it's potentially turning existing practices on their head, for many analysts, the biggest challenge is being disciplined enough to avoid getting hands-on before they’ve put themselves in the stakeholder’s shoes and established the questions they need answering.


Visit www.sophic.co.uk/our-courses to find out more about Sophic's 'Impactful Reporting' workshop and the other workshops that form our programme of stakeholder engagement for analysts.





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