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Designing Visual Appendices for Your Next Report—In Under an Hour

Nov 10th, 2020 / Data Visualization / , ,

A couple years ago, I worked on this report:

This report summarized survey responses from both universities and their students. Even with hundreds of survey responses and dozens of survey questions, we kept the report’s body to just six pages!

This report summarized survey responses from both universities and their students. Even with hundreds of survey responses and dozens of survey questions, we kept the report’s body to just six pages!

How’d we choose which findings to include in the report’s main body?!

That can be a daunting task. But it doesn’t have to be.

It’s much easier to pare down our report’s content when we’ve got appendices to back us up.

We don’t have to worry about forgetting any important details, since readers can simply flip to the back to learn more.

We get to be transparent by showing all the data (in the appendices) without overwhelming our busy readers (by trying to shove everything into the body of the report).

This particular report was six pages long plus 33 pages of appendices!

This particular report was six pages long plus 33 pages of appendices!

What Can—and Should—Be Included in Appendices

Here’s everything that can be removed from the report’s main body and pushed to the appendix:

  • Question-by-question survey responses (i.e., tables and tables of closed-ended and open-ended survey data)
  • Data collection instruments (e.g., an empty copy of the questions from the survey)
  • Transcripts from qualitative data collection (like focus groups or interviews)
  • Meeting minutes or other official documents we might’ve referenced quickly within the body of the report
  • Anything that would put our non-technical audiences to sleep
  • Anything that’s not central to the key takeaway message from the report
  • Anything we feel like we should include just in case
  • Anything that one person who asks lots of questions might need to know about
  • Patterns over time (e.g., our report’s main body could focus on this year’s data, but we might include tables that compare this year’s data to last year’s data in the appendix)

What Appendices Typically Look Like

Here’s what tables in the back of reports typically look like: Tiny font sizes, cluttered tables, and no visuals to help readers spot the key patterns.

Here’s what tables in the back of reports typically look like: Tiny font sizes, cluttered tables, and no visuals to help readers spot the key patterns.

But what if I told you our appendices could get even better than that—in under an hour??

Introducing… Visual Appendices!

Here’s my wish for your next report: Visual appendices!

Here’s my wish for your next report: Visual appendices!

5 Easy Edits to Appendices

Let’s start with those original appendices that I showed you a moment ago…

Here are the original appendices with tiny font sizes, cluttered tables and no visuals to help readers spot key patterns.

First, declutter the existing tables. Remove all the unnecessary borders and lines.

Oops! Too bare. Don’t worry, we’ll continue editing in the next step.

Let's clean this appendix up! First, declutter the existing tables. Remove all the unnecessary borders and lines.

Second, I re-add the horizontal lines in gray rather than in black. Light gray horizontal lines ensure that our viewers can still read across the rows without distracting from the data by adding lots of dark ink.

Second, I re-add the horizontal lines in gray rather than in black. Light gray horizontal lines ensure that our viewers can still read across the rows without distracting from the data by adding lots of dark ink.

Third, add visuals! This is the most fun part.

Third step- add visuals! This is the most fun part.

Fourth, apply a text hierarchy. A text hierarchy means our title is going to be the largest, boldest, darkest text on the page (followed by Heading 1s, 2s, and 3s).  

Fourth, apply a text hierarchy. A text hierarchy means our title is going to be the largest, boldest, darkest text on the page (followed by Heading 1s, 2s, and 3s).

Fifth, add some plain-language text. In this fictional example, I’ve added a short introductory section. I’ve also changed the n=456 jargon into a friendly sentence: “We collected data from 456 respondents.”

Fifth, add some plain-language text. In this fictional example, I’ve added a short introductory section.

3 Quick Visuals to Include in Appendices

There are plenty of quick visuals that we can include in our appendices. Here are a few of my favorite styles.

Bar Charts (or Stacked Bar Charts)

I showed you this approach already. We can build bar charts or stacked bars to visualize how many (“frequencies”).

I showed you this approach already. We can build bar charts or stacked bars to visualize how many (“frequencies”).

Heat Tables (or Any Type of Color-Coded Cells)

I love creating heat tables to help readers spot the highs and lows in the dataset. Heat tables are more helpful than bar charts when our tables have several rows and columns (like these fictional tables below, which have seven columns each).

Heat tables help readers spot the highs and lows in the dataset and are are more helpful than bar charts when our tables have several rows and columns (like these fictional tables below, which have seven columns each).

Trend Lines (or Vertical Columns)

Finally, I love creating trend lines (or, vertical columns) to show patterns over time. In this fictional example, we’re comparing how the patterns shifted between the 2012-13 academic year and the 2017-18 academic year.

Trend lines (or, vertical columns) show patterns over time. In this fictional example, we’re comparing how the patterns shifted between the 2012-13 academic year and the 2017-18 academic year.

The next time you’re adding appendices to your report, add visual appendices!

Bonus: Learn How to Make Visual Appendices

I’m leading a live 60-minute training on visual appendices as part of the Dashboard Design Full Course, which opens for once-a-year enrollment the week of November 16-20, 2020. Learn more.

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