WRITING AND DATABASE TECHNOLOGY
NOTE: Article originally written in 1996
Data reports refers only to printed reports that are composed of both tables of numbers, words, or both. Tabular reports are the most common.
Reports consisting of data tables are vital to almost every business function. These reports are used by marketing, budgeting, production, and sales. This means many people may require many different versions of the same report, catered to their own personal needs. These reports can be intended strictly for the specific person reading them, or for a general group of readers.
The value of reports is organized record keeping and problem solving. However, many businesspersons lack the proficiency to generate a form and content that directly address a pressing business problem. According to a survey, managers were spending almost half of their work year looking for such data. Often, current reports would need to be adjusted and mathematically figured so that the new reports actually did provide the correct data. This process can be very frustrating and little attention is given in either business or in technical and professional writing classes to building people’s skills in writing effective data reports.
To develop these reports, writers have to transform raw data (“facts”) into meaningful information for a given context, audience, and organizational purpose, and it must be communicated in an effective way. This transformation is a rhetorical activity. People learn about data reporting, not through specialized courses, but in computer training classes, therefore stressing technological skills over rhetorical. This sends the message that knowing how to operate a technology is commensurate with knowing how to use it to its full advantage to achieve a purposeful exchange of information.
Data reporting demands a dynamic interplay between a writer’s rhetorical and technological skills. As such, it should have a place in technical and professional writing classes. The purpose of this essay is to explore unique skills and knowledge that data-report writers need to learn in order to produce effective data reports. Mirel argues that if data reports are to serve readers’ needs for record keeping and problem solving then writers’ technological skills must serve their rhetorical aims and strategies.
DATA REPORTING AS COMMUNICATION
To analyze the interactive rhetorical and technological competencies involved in data-report writing, Mirel first presents a framework for understanding the communicative dimensions of report writing. Historically, data tables have been associated with scientific rationality. However, this asocial view of tabular data ignores the inescapable rhetorical intentions and practical consequences of retrieving and reporting data. Many researchers argue that facts are not simply transferred from senders to receivers, but rather that it is based on a relationship between readers and writers. This relationship-based view of constructing knowledge casts a new light on the writing of data reports.
Many composition specialists examine computer literacy and electronically produced information through this constructivist lens. However, they omit databases and nonlinear tabular communications from the technologies they examine, such as word processing, desktop publishing, electronic conferencing, and E-mail. Some research in rhetoric, visual design, and human factors, however, does focus on database-related communications. This research reveals that
Key rhetorical strategies inform data searches, retrievals, and reporting;
Rhetorical and technological skills mutually support and shape each other; and
Designs for functionally effective tables must facilitate readers’ strategies for answering business questions.
Key Rhetorical Strategies Inform the Searching for, Retrieval of, and Reporting of Electronic Data
Sullivan (1986) concludes that rhetorical invention is the defining feature of electronic data searches. She finds that searchers must possess the following skills, all of which involve invention processes:
Knowing the meaning of “invisible” data that are stored in the system;
Focusing on what is at issue in a communication situation (stasis); and
Determining the most effective topical orientation of a particular purpose (topoi).
Rhetorical invention also comes into play in reporting data. Research finds that writers do not experiment with enough formats. Therefore, they rarely produce the best format for their exact purposes. As on overview of qualities necessary for effective data reports, Zmud (1978) identifies four characteristics that are implicitly rhetorical, as noted in the parenthesis:
Quality of information (selecting appropriate and relative data);
Accuracy and sufficiency of information (selecting the right scope and detail);
Quality of format (sequencing, ordering, and chunking information effectively); and
Quality of meaning (evoking emphasis, patterns, and relations through logic and layout).
Skills in Rhetoric and Database Technologies Support and Shape Each Other
A number of studies show an inextricable link between rhetorical and technological strategies in data searching and retrieval. Researchers find that unless people know (or invent) (a) the meaning of the data, (b) the significance of data relationships, and (c) the right level of detail for a questions, they will have difficulty understanding the basic program logic of search principles and data structures.
Designs for Functionally Effective Tables Must Facilitate Readers’ Strategies
Developing effective tabular displays of data should lead writers to research on visual rhetoric. A list of such research reports is found on page 384. These researchers emphasize the need to design tables to answer questions that readers will ask. There are three distinct levels of questions and answers: elementary, intermediate, and overall. The goal for designers is to choose a tabular image that answers the majority of questions the information is capable of generating.
Functionality is also important in designing tables. While simplicity works best as an aesthetic preference, it is not always the best strategy for displaying information. Designers should realize that the effectiveness of a table does not depend on how much information it includes, but on how information is layered and ordered to facilitate readers’ interpretations. Developing effective data reports requires writers to be adept at rhetorical strategies for invention, arrangement and delivery, and to understand the logic and capabilities that a program offers for defining, searching for, and retrieving data and for organizing it into printed reports.
To study the rhetorical and technological skills involved in data reporting, Mirel analyzed readers’ reported responses to the actual data reports that they receive and use at work. From these responses, she inferred some knowledge and skills that writers should have to develop effective reports.
Mirel had 25 respondents – project administrators in a national research laboratory. She gathered information on their responses to a report that they received each month. The report was generated from a mainframe financial system. The respondents used the report for tracking costs, managing accounts, and assessing budget over- and under-runs. Mirel conducted a semi-structured interview with the respondents that usually lasted an hour. She asked the respondents the same four questions; then she analyzed the participants’ combined responses for patterns in their strategies and purposes for analyzing the report, for their satisfactions and dissatisfactions with the report, and for their methods of overcoming problems with it.
Mirel showed that the respondents are uniformly dissatisfied with the report and use the report for the same general purposes.
Each month, respondents use the report to answer four central cost-accounting questions: (1) Are all the changes legitimate? (2) Where do high or unusual charges come from? (3) What are the differences between actual and budgeted costs? and (4) Which accounts are likely to run over budget (and how should resources be allocated to avoid that overrun)? The respondents criticized the reports with the following six reasons:
Information overload: the report has too much data.
Overly narrow content: it does not give a big enough picture of cumulative months.
Random data: it does not group or emphasize data for easy interpretation.
Unprocessed data: it does not calculate key relationships such as variances between actual and budgeted costs.
Unintelligible data: it labels rows or columns with terms that have unclear meanings.
Unpresentable data: it has low legibility and layouts with little difference between figure and ground.
Some respondents rearrange their information in some ways, but six of the respondents rearrange their report either on their own PC or in the interface program. These six are considered writers as well as readers. The other respondents believe they lack the technical knowledge to reorganize their reports.
Most respondents felt that they lacked the technical knowledge to adapt the software or applications to their specific needs. They need to know how to translate their rhetorical aims into a technologically produced document.
To develop effective reports, writers must learn the database capabilities that enable them to achieve their rhetorical aims for invention, arrangement, and delivery.
The Aims and Processes of Invention in Data Reporting
The success of data reporting depends on fundamental invention processes, namely writers becoming familiar with a subject, identifying issues and questions that concern readers, understanding the optical orientations that address these concerns, and selecting content accordingly.
The respondents’ unhappiness with the report can be traced to many invention issues. The report does not select and display key data relevant to their needs. Many of the respondents wanted other content as well, such as more verbal description about purchases. The report writers need many technical competencies in database applications, but databases are one of the most complicated technologies for lay users to manipulate for their specific purposes. Writers also need to understand if the connections among data that make sense, practically, for solving a business problem are technically feasible. It is only feasible if the data are set up in a special way to allow writers to retrieve data from different databases.
Once the databases are created, report writers have to know how to frame their searches for information in statements that a program will accept and process. Writing search statements involves abiding by the syntax of a program and, at times, becoming creative with its search logic.
Finally, report writers’ technological strategies include assessing whether the data they retrieve are in fact the right data for their purposes. Database users rarely check the answers yielded by a search “failing to search for other levels of data which could supplement or contradict what they already found.”
The Aims and Processes of Arrangement in Data Reporting
One of the greatest challenges for report writers is to choose an appropriate organizing logic for tables that are multifunctional. They need to know that data reports for marketing purposes may take as many as five drafts of a table before a report convincingly shows a supervisor that it is best to target a very small group of low-volume customers because they generate the highest revenue.
Rhetorical purpose should determine whether the best display is a table or some other graphic form. The preset order of columns results in separating data that these readers want to compare. The row headings also do not accommodate the “cut into the data” that some respondents want to take because of the unique structures of their projects.
The Aims and Process of Delivery in Data Reporting
Delivering information in effective visual designs involves giving readers easy access to the data and data relationships relevant to their concerns. Reports used for reference usually display large amounts of data in a small amount of tabular space. Legibility is paramount.
Reports used for problem solving need designs that draw readers’ attention to key information and that help them to distinguish important types and groupings of information. Table displays should create for readers’ paths through the table so that readers perceive particular groupings of data as individual “locales” that they may access at random and read as self-contained information. Type size, style and variation are vital for emphasizing specific elements and relationships; positioning and locating data support people’s conventional strategies for reading left to right and top to bottom. Use of white space is important in creating tables that maintain readers’ understanding.
IMPLICATIONS FOR TEACHING AND FURTHER RESEARCH
For invention, arrangement, and delivery, writers of data reports must dynamically relate rhetorical and technological strategies to produce accessible and purposeful tables of information. The effectiveness of data reports, as judged by readers in an actual communication context, hinges on writers having chosen and implemented conceptual and visible displays that answer readers’ concerns and questions.
Mirel suggests introducing undergraduate students to a curricula including technical and professional writing. It would be especially beneficial if the writing and computing teachers could provide some collaboration for the students and can include team teaching to show how both areas cross over.
To better understand the rhetorical and technological competencies involved in data reporting, researchers need to investigate the ways in which various features and functions of database applications enhance or constrain rhetorical choices. More studies should focus on report writers and actual readers in natural work settings, closely assessing the qualities that characterize effectiveness for different types of data reports and the processes involved in producing them. These studies need to extend long enough for researchers to iteratively test writers’ choices and revisions against readers’ actual uses of a document.