Two Data Viz Techniques to Strengthen your Annual Reports

Updated: Apr 30, 2019

“Do you have a copy of that annual report?”

“We would love to see some data on that program.”

“What’s the status of your new program?”

I get these requests all the time. As a program coordinator, I am responsible for several internal and external annual reports each year. Even though reports are often requirements for many grants or board of directors, I still enjoy the process of collecting all of the data and identifying the best way to communicate our results. This year, I used data visualization techniques to step up my annual report game.

  1. Dashboards

  2. Small multiples graphs

I have been honing my data visualization skills over the last year and these are two of my favorite tricks I have picked up along the way. I will share what I have learned in hopes that you can up your annual report game too!

1. Dashboards

Simple dashboards created in Excel were not part of my data visualization toolbox until recently. I participated in Ann Emery’s webinar on Dashboard Design, and now I see opportunities to use these dashboards everywhere. Reports, meetings, and site visits are all part of my day to day work that could benefit from a quick dashboard.

Here is an example. We conduct site visits with our grantee agencies each year. This is an opportunity to talk about program strengths, opportunities for improvement, progress toward annual goals, and to identify goals for the coming year.

In the past, I shared this table with our grantees:

(I removed some information for anonymity)



In the table above, I used some conditional formatting to highlight in green when the agency met their 2018 target. I highlighted in yellow if their proposed 2019 goal was a change from their 2018 goal.

Inspired by the Dashboard Design webinar, I thought it was time to re-evaluate how I was presenting this annual data to our partner agencies. I hoped improved design and layout would deepen our conversations about strengths and gaps in our work.

Here is what I came up with:

I drew out a few key components from my busy table and highlighted those in this dashboard. To start, I wanted to easily tell which goals were completed by each grantee agency. By using symbols to signal if goals were completed or not, the viewer can quickly see which strategies are working well and which need additional attention.


I created these with the font Webdings. Type "g" if your goal has been met and "c" if your goal hasn't been met. Then change the font to Webdings. Advanced excel folks can also use the IF formula to achieve the same result.


I also used data bars for each goal to provide a quick visual of what progress has been made, in addition to providing the percent to goal.



This dashboard will be used to make decisions by both funders and grantees about funding levels and future goals. Because the information is clearly presented, we can spend more time talking about how to improve our programming rather than how to interpret the table.

Which of your reporting tools could benefit from a dashboard makeover?

2. Small multiples

In data visualization, it is usually best practice to explore your data and identify what information you want to highlight before choosing a chart that best fits your data. I still strongly recommend this practice. However, I want to share one underrated chart type that is really helping me step up my annual reporting game.


Small multiples.

As an abstract artist and designer, I am really drawn to these charts because of their visual appearance. The use of color and line is simple and draws me in to learn more about the data. I often test out whether small multiples will work with the data as part of my exploratory process.

Here are some steps I go through before I identify small multiples as the answer:

1. When working with my annual reporting data, I find myself starting with a graph that looks like this:





Or this:




These busy charts are not that helpful. There is a lot of information on this chart and it is not clear where the viewer should look first.

2. Sometimes the solution is to highlight one line:


In this case, I think this chart is still too busy for viewers. Sometimes if there are fewer sites or categories it might work.

3. I took a look at my data and made a quick dashboard with some sparklines and data bars to see if that would be enough to visualize my data. Sparklines and data bars are small charts that appear within cells of a table and can be used to compare rows of data within a table.


I determined this dashboard wasn't enough for my annual report, so then I tried small multiples.

Small multiples are a great option to display your data, provide a visual overview to directors and supervisors, but also allow other viewers to zoom in and focus on the information they care most about.


These are the ones I ended up including in my report. The director overseeing all sites can look at changes in the number of tests performed over time and then supervisors at each site can zoom in and just focus on their location.

Bonus: these are a great tool to also try out in your excel dashboard for your next report or meeting.

Feel free to tweet at me (@SaraDeLong) and let me know what you think of these two strategies and which one you might add to your toolbox.



© Sara DeLong