4 Design Principles For Usable Performance Reports

by Stacey Barr |

Performance reports that are put together with two font styles – one for the normal text and one for the headings – aren’t just boring and monotonous to the eye. They are also hard to navigate, and make it quite a challenge to find the information you need rapidly and frustration-free.

In a day and age where word processing and spreadsheet software are easy to use and have a plethora of fabulous formatting tools (like colour, typefaces, font sizes, borders, shading and so on), there is really no excuse for not adding a layer of visual information to performance reports to aid navigation and interpretation.

This layer of information could be called “visual prioritisation”, where the most important results are highlighted more strongly to make it easy for the user to prioritise what they read first, and how to interpret it.

A dull layout and formatting design also deadens the interest of users, compels them to put it to the bottom of their reading pile, makes them feel uncomfortable or awkward using the report.

It’s not too hard to learn the basics of good visual design. I learned from Robin Williams (not the actor) in her book called “The Non-Designer’s Design Book” [1]. She discusses four very basic principles of visual design: proximity, alignment, repetition and contrast.

Principle #1: Proximity gives a report structure.

For performance reports, proximity is about the structure of the report and the use of white space to visually “chunk” related information together, such as collating related measures under strategic goal headings.

Principle #2: Alignment gives a report navigatability.

Alignment is about how space on each page or dashboard screen is used so that graphs, explanations, cause analysis and recommendations have obvious connections to one another.

Principle #3: Repetition gives a report familiarity.

Repetition is about consistency, such as using the same graph type and formatting to display performance measures for a trend over time comparison.

Principle #4: Contrast gives a report fast interpretatability.

And contrast is about making the important things really stand out, like signals of sudden or gradual change in performance or the attainment of a target.

Not just useful, but usable too.

Proximity, alignment, repetition and contrast are principles for making your performance reports usable. Of course, the usefulness of a performance report is at least as important as its usability. But without usability, a performance report’s usefulness won’t be discovered!

[1] Robin Williams, “The Non-Designer’s Design Book”, Peachpit Press, 1994


How do you use proximity, alignment, repetition and contrast in the design of your performance reports and dashboards? Share your suggestions on the blog.

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  1. Paul says:

    Great article (again)

    Repetition is a good topic for debate

    Do you think that the expected trend (ideal trend) should be repeated ?

    I’ll explain with an example from a hypothetical Customer service performance report

    we want customer complaints to come down- so a downward graph is want we want to see

    On the second page of the report is delivery on time, should we inverse the title so that the “late deliveries” trend should be also downward when “OK” thus repeating the idel trend of the complaints graph

    I have often heard the comment that ity is confusing if the “ideal trend” is always changing direction in the same report.

    Getting ideas back from others is of course the aim of this post ….


    • Stacey Barr says:

      Hey Paul, this is a good topic in it’s own right: should all measures be presented so that up is good and down is bad? Personally, I’m not a fan as I reckon it makes things complex.

      If we take our measures seriously, we ought to know what we’re aiming for in each one. It’s too risky to get people into the comfort zone of up=good and down=bad, particularly when it makes little sense to measure that way. Workplace Accidents and Near Misses are two examples.

      Don’t you agree the effort of getting used to interpreting each measure properly is less than the effort of trying to get all measures to fit the same trend format? So, I reckon that’s taking the ‘repetition’ principle to an extreme that’s no longer useful.

  2. Wes Arrington says:

    I’ve read the Williams book. It’s pretty good as far as it goes. The expert on dashboards is Stephen Few. He starts by explaining how humans process information, including lines, shapes, colors, etc., and moves on with how to construct meaningful dashboard graphics. I highly recommend his books and work.

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