Reporting and dashboards: Visual merchandising for business intelligence

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Visual merchandising, primarily and most notably a retail term, is the art of optimising the presentation of a product or service in order to stimulate sales.

A retailer is looking to create a welcoming and comfortable environment for customers by stimulating consumer senses through a variety of mechanisms at its disposal. The benefits are increased foot-fall, positive word-of-mouth promotion, and a returning customer base which all contribute towards improved sales and profitability over an extended term.

This same principle can be applied to dashboards and reporting to assure the success of a business intelligence (BI) implementation. Dashboards and reports are the shop-window and the sales floor into the BI solution as a whole.

The behind-the-scenes activities, such as construction of the data warehouse and marts and the governance which underpins the entire solution will likely never be seen or appreciated by the business-user even though they are necessary and vital.

The presentation layer must therefore evangelise the overall solution on these components’ behalf by successfully marrying form and function to deliver on customer expectations and keep them coming back to the application. To achieve this, organisations should stay mindful of the following key principles when implementing a reporting solution:

  • Technology and data are important, but business requirements are paramount.
  • Polished look-and-feel is vitally important to user acceptance - take care in use of format/colours/text in a report.
  • Establish standard report templates to ensure reports have consistent look-and-feel.
  • A report must be intuitive and display information in the most effective manner possible.
  • When there is a large amount of information to display, it should be categorised for end users to enable them to easily access what they need.
  • Conditional Formatting is a powerful way to enable users to manage by exception.
  • Utilise prototyping to refine business requirement definition - most business people struggle to understand report design on paper.
  • Think carefully about report navigation – report grouping; moving between reports; drill paths.
  • Resist temptation to overload reports to meet multiple requirements as this leads to usability and performance issues - better to build more, simpler reports.
  • The success of reporting and dashboards is not measured by technical performance or data accuracy alone but chiefly by the business value delivered to the end users and frequency of use.


Now more than ever BI projects need to consider how best to present, or merchandise, data as information through the medium of the presentation layer.

End-users are more tech-savvy than ever and are accustomed to regular use of technology, including experiencing user interfaces from a customer perspective on a daily basis.

Expectations for visual stimulation, intuitive interaction, and readily accessible information are now paramount and any BI solution found wanting in its reporting and dashboard ‘visual merchandising’ will quickly meet its demise.

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