I recently helped convert a sales report from Excel into Power BI. The manager I worked with was looking for a customer performance report that would go beyond gross sales, and estimate profitability after all services had been completed. Being able to clearly highlight profitable customers from non-profitable ones would help show a suspected trend and hopefully lead to a constructive conversation within the team.

I spent time ensuring that the measures returned the expected results, and then spent time revising the design, flow, and visuals that would help call out the main points in the report.

When we met again, we started out with a brief review of the original spreadsheet. When we switched over to the Power BI version, I noticed the managers face light up! Although the numbers hadn’t changed, the layout clearly did. For this report, the design changes were enough to make difference.

I love Excel, however using spreadsheets in a group often lead to more questions than answers. Contrast this with our current use of Power BI where we are able to interact with the report as a knowledgeable participant, able to answer various questions as they arise.

Our journey from spreadsheets to Power BI took some time for us to fully implement. It required learning technical skills such as dimensional modeling, DAX, and Power Query. It also required building new non-technical skills such as how to promote Power BI in our business, how to share a data story, and how to design a report that ultimately leads to constructive dialogue.

In this blog post I focus on five report design techniques that have helped us better present our data story and turn data into direction.

1. Know your audience:

Knowing your audience and their tolerance for change is a great first step in engaging the business to provide improved insights.

In our business we fully depended on paper reports that included pages of customer lists and product information. For this reason it was important for us not to completely abandon tables of numbers as we moved towards Power BI. Most of our reports still represent a split between a table (resembling our old reports), and some graphing visuals that show trends over time and allow for questions to be drilled into.

Combining tables and visuals has been a great compromise for those that still fall back on paper reporting, while still providing insights that would otherwise go unnoticed based on the paper reports alone.

2. Use appropriate visuals that emphasize main points:

I avoid the temptation of filling a report page with bold and flashy visuals. We do our best to keep our report very clean with even spacing between visuals. Fewer key visuals have proven to help us stay focused on our discussion of just the main points of the report.

I also avoid visuals that tend to take up more space than they deserve. Examples are pie charts and speedometers. Some of our users don’t consider it a “real dashboard” without visuals like this, but there are great alternatives such as bar and line charts that show change in volume, or change over time respectively. These alternative visuals end up being more informative and often take up less space on the report.

As for simple formatting practices, I always turn on the borders (and sometimes the shadow option) around my visuals. I also make it a practice of including clear and readable title labels above each visual. Doing so properly frames your information and clarifies its purpose.

As for positioning visuals on the report, I keep key points of the report at the top. Using larger card visuals that allow for conditional formatting is a great way to give special attention to important measures in your report.

3. Create a logical flow:

It is ideal that information on the report follow a logical flow. As a rule, I stick to a left-to-right, top-to-bottom layout. When telling a effective data story, we want our users to not wonder where to look next as we are talking.

For example, if I am displaying sales information by supplier, I’ll order the information to start at the vendor level, then move towards the product lines, then finally if needed by sub product. For profitability reporting, I report revenue on the left, followed by cost, margin dollars, and finally margin percentage.

Pairing our visuals to flow with our data story is ideal and helps us effectively progress through our presentation.

4. Limit your report ideally to one report page:

I’ve seen more people abandon reporting software when they realize they are required to navigate between multiple screens. One characteristic I appreciate within Power BI for general and presentation use is how it provides great flexibility navigating information from one page. One report page can slice and drill through many scenarios. Sticking to one page and the ability to tell your story from that view reduces the need to stop mid story and re-orient the group to the report.

If drilling into lower levels of detail are necessary, I suggest limiting your presentation to just one additional drill down layer, as anything beyond two levels of detail could confuse our position in the report. I post a tip on combining key information into just two detail levels in this blog post here.

5. Ask questions that prompt ideas and collaboration:

In my experience the better we interact within our report, the better we interact as a group. While a Power BI report brings us extreme flexibility in setting up the visuals for our story, it is the act of storytelling that really promotes engagement and determines our direction.

When reports are trusted and demonstrate clear trends, the storytelling process helps us get to the finish line of setting goals, solving problems, and pulling towards a common goal.

When we realize the power of an effective data story, it becomes clear that the most effective use of BI in our business cones from combining data with an effective dialogue.

In this blog post we addressed five key areas of report design that help us leverage Power BI as an active participant in our meetings. When reports are designed for the audience with clear information, we get through the complexity of reporting and free up our time and energy to address insights, goals, and measured results.

Thank you as always for visiting my blog, Have a great week!

– Mark