03 June 2010

Reports’ Creation - Part I: Addressable Questions

    The creation of a database-based report of any type involves most of the times several iterations until all the requirements are gathered, the query and eventually the final report are created, the reports gets tested, the issues related to deliveries and requirements mitigated, etc. Typically the steps involved in the creation of a report are straightforward for the developer, though for the user and the other people involved in the process everything might look like a black box, often also from the lack of visibility and communication between the involved parties. Actually at least in this case the black box is not the problem but the input and output that’s highly dependent on the input, not to mention that any information omitted from user’s side could have unexpected impact on output.

   In many cases I found out that the information on which a report is created are minimal, for example the user comes to the developer with a question (e.g. what’s the total revenue for the past x years) and he’s expecting the developer to come with the result in terms of a report with data reflecting the answer to the respective question. When formulating the requirements, the user might even come with a list of attributes he would like to see in such a report, some of the attributes might not be possible to be shown given the needed report’s level of detail or that it makes sense to add other attributes (e.g. Unit of Measure, Currency, Price Unit, Quantity) in order to avoid possible confusion, miscalculations, and to facilitate the understanding, testing or usage of such a report. There could be cases in which the user has no really idea of what he wants, being difficult to describe the problem and the exact data he might need, and this could happen also because the user isn’t aware of the data and their structure, processes or the various constraints and other business rules that applies.

   When from the whole initial dataset based on the requested attributes the user needs only a smaller subset, this is translated into a set of constraints (e.g. the report is needed is given only for a single Vendor or a time unit), then it makes sense to consider some of the constraints as parameters, allowing to fit the report to a larger set of requirements. In addition the user might need to use as filter additional attributes not already considered in constraints. For an easier report’s understanding the columns could be positioned in a certain order and the records sorted based on a given list of ordered attributes. For the same reason special formatting could be applied for some of the attributes, for example the values could be right/center/left aligned, the dates written is a predefined format (e.g. DD/MM/YY), the rounded to a given number of decimals, the negative values could be highlighted in a another color, etc.  

    When the requirements don’t match the semantic or relational data model, then must be found the adequate level of details, for this maybe being needed to renounce to some of the attributes, eventually split the report in summary and detail report, aggregate some of the values, consider only last/first record from a given subtable, all these aspects needing to be mitigated with the users. Some of the calculations the user needs could be included directly in the report, the exact applied formulas needing to be given as input by users, the special cases needing to be mitigated too.

    As the same data could come from different sources, having different timeliness, accuracy, consistency, completeness, availability, in other words with different quality, the adequate data source needs again to be mitigated with the users, in theory needing to be considered the data with the most appropriate data quality. In addition to these constraints could be added also the technical constraints derived from the volume of data, report type, storage type, available time, data transformations needed, reporting platform, etc.

    There are several other important facts that should be actually considered in requirements gathering phase, namely on whether a similar report already exists, could be used unaltered or needs to be modified by adding additional attributes, filters, formatting, etc. As all such work needs to have also a ROI argumentation, there are also cases in which the costs of creating such a report are higher then the costs associated with the user preparing the report, on the other side such costs are not always so easy to quantify, though it’s a good idea to have the needed reports as much as possible automated. In such cases might be requested some input from the Functional and IT Managers, the enforcement of policies and processes to deal with such aspects.

    The above aspects are gathered in the below set of questions, users and developers should address them altogether, and even if some apply only to developers, some awareness from the users could be beneficial to:
Q1: What’s the problem statement?
Q2: What kind of data would need to be gathered (in order to solve or better understand the problem)?
Q3: What level of detail is needed?
Q4: What attributes are need?
Q5: Is there a similar report (that could be extended or used as template)?
Q6: What are report’s definition, purpose and financial argumentation?
Q7: Does it make sense to invest time, effort and money in creating such a report?
Q8: What attributes it makes sense to add/remove?
Q9: What’s the (appropriate) source for the attributes?
Q10: What special filter constraints are needed?
Q11: Which of the filter constraints should be considered as parameters?
Q12: Which are the formulas that need to be applied for calculated values?
Q13: What (default) sorting the user needs?
Q14: What’s the needed order of the attributes in the layout?
Q15: Are there any aggregations that need to be added?
Q16: In what form the report should be delivered?
Q17: What formatting should be applied?
Q18: What’s report’s frequency?
Q19: Who will be report’s owner?
Q20: How many records the average report will have?
Q21: What other technical or logistic constraints qualify?
Q22: When is the report needed?
Q23: What documentation is needed?

   The above list of questions should not be considered as complete, some of the questions could be merged while some of the question could lead to other questions, especially in the area of technical and logistics constraints that need to be addressed adequately.

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