5 Principles of Report Design

We at LearningBridge are big on feedback. We’re passionate about helping people receive feedback well. One way we do that is by providing proprietary 360 surveys. Clients use our standardized 360 surveys but for most of our clients we provide customized surveys that align with their leadership model and key ideas important to their organization. Thus, we design a lot of reports, and we’d like to share with you relevant report design principles we use.

1. A human will receive the report, and the report matters to them.Man Reading Report

Report design, like all design, is a balance in competing priorities. When designing a report we keep in mind that there is a human who will receive the report, and the content matters to them. They need to be able to understand the feedback and get value out of it.

Anything new involves a learning curve. How steep the learning curve is can vary greatly. We design reports to minimize the learning curve, while still providing individuals with robust information to fully understand their results.

With that primary principle in mind, that a fellow human being with their own abilities and concerns will be digesting their report, we use these report design principles to provide the necessary information.

2. Start broad and narrow the focus.

As an overall approach, we like to start with broad messages, often using charts to display aggregated data. For example, at the beginning of a 360 report we display the average scores across all survey items for each rater category. This provides a general sense of how a particular rater category tended to rate the individual and how each rater category compared to one another. You then have a good sense for what scores will generally be for each rater category as you dig deeper.

You can think of this as a funnel, that is wide at the top and gets narrow as you focus on specific points. Interestingly this creates a type of inverse funnel for the report as a whole. At the beginning, each section is usually only one or two pages, with each page providing more information to help you discover a few points you might want to explore more deeply. Toward the end of the report, the last two sections, which may include an appendix is often 5-10 pages each, because there is a lot of detail about individual survey items that are broken down. However, unlike the beginning of the report, the intent isn’t that you read every piece of data on the page. The intent is that based on the higher-level views, you can selectively choose specific items to focus on.

3. Select the right chart to represent the data.

Visualizing data can get the point across quickly but how you display the data matters. Charts can show data in many formats, but the right chart will allow the reader to easily absorb the data and your summary.

Bar Charts

Bar charts make comparisons easy – visually showing not just the differences but the magnitude of difference between chart elements. They work best with one data point (average score on a single item) across many categories (rater groups or dimensions).

Heatmaps

Heatmaps are excellent at highlighting patterns across large sets of data (ideal for showing different patterns between rater groups or across many data points, e.g., dimensions or items). In particular, heatmaps and rankings help highlight the differences that are too difficult to discern with just scores.

Spider Charts

In some instances, spider charts or variations are useful when the pattern created is obvious and easy to compare and contrast in your head. Usually this means no more than 6 legs, and best if only 4. Including this type of chart can make a report look more interesting and perhaps fresh, but the chart should also be effective at communicating a main “useful” point—not just as eye candy.

Spaghetti Charts

Spaghetti charts similarly can introduce visual variety, but they are called spaghetti for a reason—too many strands create a jumbled mess. Usually it is best to pick one strand and sort the data high-low or low-high so you get what looks like a somewhat smooth trend line. The one dominant strand that you sorted by has a simple pattern that the other strands vary from.

4. Design the chart for clarity.

There are a few principles that we try to keep in mind so that the charts don’t compete with themselves or look too busy and confusing.

Communicate One Point

Charts should have one obvious point to communicate. A chart can—and often should—have other points, but only one is blindingly obvious (focal point). The visuals are designed to tell you something, so we decide which element speaks first and loudest; two elements speaking at the same time leads to confusion. We want to let the melody dominate and add harmonies to accentuate and fill out the tune. This does not mean we have simplistic charts. We believe we can have rich insight-dense charts that still adhere to this blindingly obvious principle. The gift of good visualizations is they can communicate clearly and richly, highlighting central points and coloring in nuances and meaningful underlying relationships.

Limited Color Scheme

Aim for a simple limited color scheme of primarily two colors. We generally prefer to use different shades of colors rather than multiple different colors. We use a change in color to highlight a key focus and use gradients to differentiate across points.

White Space

Designers already know this, but “white space” is not empty space. It isn’t space to be filled with interesting data—often it plays an important role in focusing attention and highlighting information. It works with the chart to communicate what is blindingly obvious and more importantly it allows you to breathe and without air we die (and so does the chart). Use of white space across the entire report is as important as it is within a single page.

Learnability vs. Utility

One concept that can conflict with the idea of only communicating one point with the chart is the learnability vs. the utility. We want the individual charts to be easy to learn how to read. At the same time, we have found that when the chart only communicates one idea or piece of information, people understand but quickly want more detail without having to flip to a new section of the report. For this reason, we like to include more information for them (the harmony as suggested above) while balancing that with the melody and learnability. If the chart is too difficult to learn how to read, then people won’t expend the effort to get the useful information.

5. Consider Common Concerns.

There are a few additional points we will touch on related to report design that tend to be a concern for recipients.

Norm Scores

There are differing views on the benefit of including norm scores. We will flesh this out further in a future article. For now, we will say that there is a good chance that the report recipient will appreciate seeing the norms. Ultimately, it will depend on your objectives with the feedback initiative that will determine the appropriateness of norm scores.

Read more: Using Norm Scores in 360-degree Feedback

Anonymity

Anonymity is extremely important to consider in your report design. In a 360, we take the approach that all non-manager rater categories need to have three completed surveys. In a team assessment (such as TeamRater and TeamHelper) or an engagement survey, we use similar criteria for the team or a given demographic breakdown. Even if a feedback respondent does identify themselves based on information they provide in a written comment.

There are cases where you may not want the feedback to be anonymous. That is okay to do as long as those responding know that their feedback won’t be anonymous. In most situations, particularly for 360s and engagement surveys, it is best to provide anonymity. In one of the factors that causes organizations to seek our help is to add that extra layer of third-party anonymity to make their respondents feel more comfortable.

Strengths vs. Weaknesses

There are debates about whether reports should only focus on strengths or weaknesses. We’ll provide more detail on this point as well in a future article. There are strong cases for both approaches. Like norm scores, the biggest factor will be your objectives with the feedback initiative.

Conclusion

Keeping in mind these five general report design principles is important when creating your report, whether you are working with us on your own custom report or using an existing survey and report. These principles will help you create a report that aids the recipients in getting the feedback they need in a manner that can help them make decisions and take action.