When the CFO Writes a Report: Five Rules of Effective Data Visualization

Presenting data in a way that your audience can grasp quickly supports better decision-making. A new CGMA briefing, developed in partnership with KPMG, describes how.

One way finance professionals can improve the quality of decision-making in their organization is to ensure they present management information in a way that is quick and easy for non-finance colleagues to absorb.

An accessible representation enables colleagues to react to the situation and take the appropriate action swiftly.

Remember that less is more – the more information you try to add, the greater the danger that your message will be lost

Representing data and information in a pictorial or graphical format is one way of achieving this, and cloud-based technologies are making data visualization easier to achieve.

Tools such as Microsoft Power BI, Tableau, and Qlik connect to big data sources, including unstructured data, and can look for data patterns and provide insights. Such tools can be owned and managed by the finance department.

The briefing, “Report Visualisation: From Concept to Deployment,” outlines the principles of effective report visualization.

Ensure data is optimized

For effective decisions to be made and to drive business performance, the information presented must be based on the right indicators.

When deciding on the most appropriate way to present your data, ask yourself: What is the end goal? What message am I trying to convey?

With that as your guide, consider the metrics you need to include in the report to achieve that, end-goal, and the most relevant sources from which to take that data.

Select a visualization tool your audience will feel comfortable with

Options include dashboards, line charts, mapping charts, and bar or pie charts. Bridges, also known as waterfall charts, are well-suited to depict variance analysis as the steps in the bridge are to scale, so the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn to the most significant movements first.

Dashboards can display the key drivers of a particular business area, providing a useful summary of performance. Mapping charts offer an effective way to illustrate performance in several markets or regions.

Remember that less is more – the more information you try to add, the greater the danger that your message will be lost.

Consider the layout

The positioning, colors, and scaling of the visualization tool you choose are important aspects. Opt for clean, sharp contrasting colors. Place your key message in the top left-hand corner of the page or screen, as this is the area the reader notices first.

The color scheme you decide on should be applied consistently. For example, if you (and your team) generally use red to depict an adverse variance, do not confuse the viewer by using it to represent a favorable one in your next report.

Likewise, use the same color to depict a client, product, or service line throughout the report.

Optimize the user experience

Engaging with the report’s end user is essential to ensure your message is conveyed effectively. Will they view your report in print, or on a touch screen computer or tablet?

The options to consider to enhance their experience include personalized reporting, navigation, and interactivity. You may wish to create the same report in several styles to ensure the information is absorbed by all of the stakeholders.

Adapt the visualization to the delivery channel

There is a big difference between viewing something on a mobile phone screen and on a laptop or PC, or in print versus electronic format, and the design needs to be adapted accordingly.

For example, if a report is to be viewed online, providing drill-down and filter options can accommodate different screen sizes.

The data visualization tools available are constantly improving as the technology evolves. Making the best use of them to convey management information is a core skill for finance professionals, and will remain so in the near future.  

About the Author

CGMA Magazine is a publication of the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants, which offers the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) professional designation. The association is a joint venture of AICPA in the US and CIMA in the UK. Click here to subscribe to the weekly newsletter CGMA Magazine Update.

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