What should I use, a hammer or screwdriver???
Lately, I have been working with several of our team members and clients regarding various reporting needs. Since I do a lot of work with Power BI, they will bring me in because they believe Power BI is the correct answer. In most cases, when they think Power BI, they are considering either the free version or Power BI Pro. In other words, they are looking for a visualization to replace their report. In many cases, this is possible, but other times there are struggles and issues. It made me think about the toolbox I have in my garage. I am not a handyman by any means, but I do have a few of your typical tools including a couple hammers and few screwdrivers so I can take care of various household projects, like hanging a picture, putting together furniture, building all the toys my wife is buying for our granddaughter, etc.
These household projects remind me a lot the various report requests I see from our clients. Sometimes the report is as simple as hanging a picture, and I can just use a hammer (for this analogy, a Power BI visualization). Still other times, the report is very complex and has multiple calculations, filters, and numerous rows of results. This is a lot more like putting together the furniture or the toys. While I might still need a hammer, there are probably some screws that are needed to hold everything together. I don’t know if you have ever tried it, but you can put a screw in with a hammer. It is not pretty. It might do some damage, and it probably won’t hold together like you want, but if you hit is hard enough you can get that screw in flush. Now, if I ever tried to do that with one of the toys my wife bought for my granddaughter, I would never hear the end of it, and nobody would be happy.
So, what do I mean by using a hammer to build a report? I have seen many report designers use the matrix and table visualizations to try and build out these complex reports. Does it work? Sure, it does, but the user is probably going to have to scroll, left and right, up and down, and I sure hope they don’t want to print several pages. Of course, they can export to Excel if they need all the data. Well, that is probably where they started in the first place, so now we have used a hammer just to get them back to where they started, and they will not be happy.
Fortunately, we have more than a hammer in our toolbox with Power BI. Power BI Premium gives us the ability to have paginated reports, or what many of us know as SSRS reports. Of course, Power BI Premium originally was not cheap, but with Power BI Premium per User, there is a much more affordable option. Also there are options to use your data models in Excel which can also provide another approach for numerous rows of data.
Now having multiple tools in our toolbox requires us to expand our skillset. Writing paginated reports is different from writing standard Power BI reports, just like using a hammer and screwdriver are different, but the skills transition pretty well. However, no matter what tool you are going to use, it is critical to have some type of plan. This is another area where many of us fail with our home projects and our reporting. I hate to read the directions on those toys and furniture, but I am learning after making numerous trips to the garage for another tool or starting over multiple times. The same is true with reporting projects. Often, the client would hand me a report, and I would just start banging away to make an exact copy of the report in a reporting tool. I would finally get something close. The client would say they were happy, and shortly after, no one would be using the new report. It was frustrating. I thought I followed their directions and gave them what they wanted, and I did. While they got what they wanted, the client didn’t get what they needed. What they needed was someone to sit with them and understand their business requirements, not just the report requirements. For example, what is the purpose of the report? Who uses the report? What questions is the report answering? How and when do you access the report? By getting a better understanding of their business requirements and report requirements, it is possible to choose the right tools and build out a “toy” the user will be happy with and most importantly, they will use it to improve their daily business activities.
It might be time to look at your toolbox and approach to your reporting projects. Do you have the right tools? Are you making the right plan? Then, beyond the hammer and make sure you have truly happy report users in the end.