One of the fundamental issues to be addressed around data is how can the information best be displayed in order to enable users to quickly identify any problems and take action where needed.

The default position for data display is one where the user has an excel like view.  The grid has columns, rows and cells and the data is displayed within each one, like so:

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As part of this traditional format there is a school of thought that says, just show all the data –  the complete picture, then the user will find what is important to them.  Allow columns and rows to be locked. Paginate the data so that it is not overwhelming and the performance of each page is acceptable. Provide our user with reporting tools, so that they can export and then manipulate the data themselves.

The problem with this route is that the poor user is left with all the work to do and can only take action in limited circumstances and after time has passed. Tables take effort to use. Users need to refer to the top row, the left column and a cell within the table to begin to find their answer. The term needle in a haystack springs to mind. When it comes to monitoring and controlling the critical path, what the user needs is the relevant data points in focus, with clear information to allow decision making to flow quickly.

In an age of scrolling it perhaps isn’t surprising to learn that user research has found people don’t mind scrolling through a long page if they are confident they will find what they are looking for. That doesn’t mean an endless stream of tables and columns is the best way to layout data. Remember, tables take effort to use, even when they are simplified, so how can we reduce that effort?

To do this we need to do two things:

  1. We need to understand if our user is going to compare rows or columns.
  2. We also need to tightly define the relevant data we want to show.

Instead of the traditional approach, why not consider transforming your columns into a list?

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By using a list, users can define data as they scroll.

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If they need to compare rows, then we need to display our most important action columns and provide a way to access additional data.

This could be performed by clicking on the row and viewing a detail page, or again by allowing the user to choose additional columns for comparison themselves.

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There are many different ways to approach data formatting. While traditional tables may still have their place, it’s important to consider how data can be made more user friendly, and crucially, easier to read and act upon.