Five Tips for Making a Quality Report Appealing and Easy To Skim

To attract and hold users’ attention, your quality report needs to be designed in a way that:[1]

  • Looks appealing and approachable at first glance.
  • Helps readers notice what information is available and important.
  • Makes it easy for them to skim and find topics of personal interest.

The tips below apply to both printed and Web reports.

Use Design To Make the Report’s Purpose Clear

Make the Report Look Like It Will Be Easy To Read

You can take advantage of various design strategies to create the perception that your report will be easy to read and understand. These strategies address:

  • How you distribute content on the page.
  • The type and size of fonts you choose.
  • The color of fonts.
  • The contrast between font colors and background colors.

Review tips on using design to improve readability.

Consider Using Visuals To Enhance Appeal and Reinforce the Content

Photos, illustrations, or other design elements can add warmth and visual interest to your report. Choose visuals that are clear, uncluttered, and culturally appropriate for your intended audience.

Visuals should reflect the subject matter of your report. Use images to reinforce main content or messages, not just to decorate the report. For example, if you are showing performance measures related to surgery, you could show a picture of a surgical team doing an operation.

Make It Easy To Navigate the Report and Pick Up the Main Points

To guide people smoothly through your report, use text and graphics in combination to give clear, consistent navigation signals. These signals help people notice what’s in the report and help them find the parts of personal interest without distracting or misleading them.

  • Use plenty of informative headings and subheadings. Make them pop out for easy skimming by creating strong contrast between the text and the headings and leaving enough space around the headings.
  • Be consistent. Consistent design helps orient people, facilitates skimming, and enables easy navigation through the report.
    • Keep the overall page layout and design features consistent from page to page. Although each page in your report may have different content, the basic design should be consistent.
    • Keep the formatting of titles, headings, bulleted lists, labels, and other text the same throughout the report (same font, size, color, and so on).
    • In a printed report, keep page numbers and other reference text such as section titles in the same place on every page.
    • In a Web report, provide persistent navigation links for the main headings and keep them in the same position on each page.

Format Charts and Graphs To Be Attractive and Easy to Understand

Comparison charts and bar graphs can be intimidating. You can use formatting features to help make these data displays cleaner and more readable.

  • Keep the layout clean and uncluttered. Allow enough space so that the display doesn’t look crowded and the type size can stay large enough for easy reading. If you are creating a paper report, don’t squeeze the information into a predetermined length but make it as long as it needs to be.
  • Put your legend and other crucial reference material in a prominent place (such as the top left of the chart).
  • To clearly define the columns of a rows-and-columns chart, use left justification and maintain strong alignments. Then you can de-clutter the layout by removing vertical lines between the columns (you won’t need them).
  • To help readers track across the page within a rows-and-columns chart, consider using soft and subtle lines between the rows (such as gray lines instead of black ones). Or use bands of very soft and subtle shading on alternate rows. Be careful not to use strong shading, which can distort the look of the symbols and make it harder to see any patterns in the chart.
  • To make groups of symbols such as stars easier to read at a glance, keep the symbols close together so they create a visual "block." Also, rather than centering the symbols, left-justify them so that it is easy to see which groups are longer than others (similar to reading a bar graph by paying attention to the length of the bar).
  • Try to avoid using footnotes on a data display. The need to check on what’s in the footnote puts a greater cognitive burden on the users. Moreover, some footnotes are easy to miss, and some users don’t know what footnotes are or how they are usually signaled for a reader.Use Color in a Consistent and Meaningful Way

Color is a powerful tool for helping people skim information and pick out important patterns, such as the best and worst performers. But it’s easy to overdo it or use color in a way that is confusing rather then enlightening.

Review tips on using color effectively in your report.

[1] Adapted in part from McGee J. Toolkit for Making Written Material Clear and Effective (forthcoming), Section 2, Part 5, Understanding and using the Toolkit Guidelines for Graphic Design. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Also in "Tips on Designing a Quality Report"

Page last reviewed February 2016
Page originally created February 2015
Internet Citation: Five Tips for Making a Quality Report Appealing and Easy To Skim. Content last reviewed February 2016. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.
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