Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Critical questions to ask before buying a report writer

Report writers are pretty easy to understand, aren’t they? If your company stores data in a database (as most companies do), you need reports. To create all these fancy reports, you need a report writer.

However, beyond the basic features like exporting to Excel and creating pretty graphs, you’ll find that report writers vary in capabilities. While they may all address the same problem (your need for data), each one offers different features. Figuring out what’s best for your company can be difficult if you’re unfamiliar with essential report-writing capabilities.

Before you buy a report writer, I’d like to share a few important questions to ask:

Can it upload data?
While uploading data isn’t typically associated with report writing, it’s very useful. Often times, someone in a company needs to create reports using data that isn’t currently in the database. For example, budgeting is frequently performed outside the database using spreadsheets. Wouldn’t it be nice to upload those spreadsheets into a database table and run reports off of that data? Another example: What if your marketing department runs a survey and they want to create reports from the data? Those are just a couple examples, but there are many reasons your report writer should have the ability to upload to the database and run reports off of that data.

Does it write to the database?
Writing to the database goes hand in hand with uploading data. Once you upload data for reporting, what happens if some aspect of that data needs changing? That’s where the ability to write to the database comes in very handy. Keep in mind that altering databases can be risky in the wrong hands, and security is very important. A good report-writer should provide the ability to write to the database, but also let you set limitations on who has access and which tables can be altered.

Can anyone use it?
“Easy” is a relative term. Nearly every report writer claims “ease of use” as a feature. What does that mean? I’ve seen some report writers that were easy…if you took a long training class and had high technical proficiency. When I say “easy”, I refer to report writers that are intuitive. There shouldn’t be any coding required. Users shouldn’t have to learn a set of special inputs. An easy report writer should be point and click and simple for anyone to use. Before you buy a report writer, make sure different users have a chance to test it.

How many reporting options does it have?
How many different types of reports does it create? I’ve seen some report writers that do nothing more than download data into Excel for manipulation. Others provide very basic reporting with a few graphs. Does it let you email reports to others? Does it let you create reports that start with high level data and let you drilldown to the finest details? Don’t assume that all report writers include the same options. If you want full-featured reports, you must make sure that any report-writer you look at does everything you need.

Those are a few questions that I believe you should before you buy a report writer. Most importantly, remember these two tips: First, don’t assume each one comes with the same features. Secondly, let multiple users can test the solution before you buy.


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