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Beautiful Reports

The Non-Designer's Guide to Designing Business Documents

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An example template for an invoice.

Introduction

Congratulations. You’ve gotten the data you need and placed it into a well-organized report. Your job is done, right?

Not quite.

As any chef will tell you, it’s all about presentation. When creating any “composition,” whether it be a gourmet meal or a business document, providing the basics isn’t enough. The output must look appetizing, as well.

Let’s begin by looking at how to use text to make a beautiful report.

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Chapter 1: Text

Fonts

Every piece of text is displayed in a font, the complete assortment of type of a particular style and size. Fonts reflect the mood and tone of your document.

Fonts can be classified into two main categories: serif and sans serif.

The first line says "This is typed in a serif font, Times New Roman."  The second line says, "This is typed in a sans serif font, Arial."  Each sentence is typed in it's referenced typeface.

In general, serif fonts make words easier to read (readability) and sans serif fonts make individual letters easier to discern (legibility).

The Big Myth: Serifs Affect Readability on Computer Screens

So what font should you choose?

Choosing a font for readability or legibility is no longer the most important concern. Instead, you should choose a font consistent with the document’s contents. This includes looking at:

  • Tone and mood. If the output is a serious document, you’ll want to choose a classic font with clean lines, such as Garamond, as opposed to a decorative font such as Monotype Corsiva, which mimics handwriting.
  • Branding and logos. Is this a company report that includes a standard company logo? The rest of the report doesn’t need to use the exact font contained in the logo, but you should choose one that goes well visually with the logo or other elements.

Spacing between Text Elements

Did you know there are commonly accepted ratios for spacing of text elements?

Here are guidelines for:

  • Characters: The spacing for characters within words is taken care of by the font’s built-in spacing, so you don’t need to concern yourself with this.
  • Words: Unless you see a compelling reason to do otherwise, align text to the left. This is easiest on the eyes of the person reading the report.
  • Lines: Most report and document template interfaces automatically adjust the amount of space between lines of text. This is known as leading. If you have the ability to change the leading, a good rule of thumb is to set the leading to approximately 20 to 30 percent bigger than the type size.
  • Paragraphs: As with leading, most reporting software automatically adjusts the amount of space between paragraphs. The important thing is to take a hard look at the final spacing and if the paragraphs seem too squished or too spread out, experiment with adjusting the spacing.

Visual Aids

An example of effective subheadings in an investment document.
Well-placed subheads make reports easier to scan.

We read by scanning, so use visual clues to help your readers quickly grasp the content of a report (see what we just did there?).

Separate out key sections with subheads, such as the four main ones (Fonts, Text Blocks, Spacing and Visual Aids) you see in this chapter.

If you need to put text in one area, use visual clues such as:

• Bullets

1. Numbered Lists

Bold Text

Chapter 2: Tables

“Beautiful” probably isn’t the first word that comes to mind when you think about tables in a report. They’re great for displaying data, but they aren’t in the same class as images or other more exciting visual elements.

But don’t overlook them. Beautiful tables enhance the look of that key document you’ve worked hard to create.

Basic table with example of colors and shading.

Tables Versus Charts

Before you read any further, you have a key decision to make: whether to use a table or a chart to display the information.

If it’s important that the report reader see individual data points, go with a table. If not, you’ll likely want a chart.

Optimal Cell, Row and Column Dimensions

Okay, that was a trick subhead. There are no “optimal” dimensions.

As much as we’d love to give you a formula for calculating the height and width of each cell, column and/or row, there is none. It all depends upon the data you’re including in the table. Generally the cell with the most content will determine the height and width of the adjacent cells.

Justifying Data in Rows and Columns

The same table with left aligned text in each cell.
Here we’ve aligned most of the text to the top and the left of each cell,instead of the earlier center and bottom alignment, for easier scanning.The one exception is the column of numbers.

Should your data be aligned to the left in a cell? The right? The center? The top? The bottom?

It depends.

Horizontal Alignment

In general, left-justified text is the most natural for the reader. Center-justified text should be used sparingly, perhaps for elements you want to stand out from the rest, such as column headers and subheads.

One major exception to this rule is when the data is currency or other numbers. You’ll likely want to right justify content so decimal points or base digits line up vertically in each cell, making it easy to scan and compare data.

Vertical Alignment

Also, don’t forget to consider how text is aligned vertically within a cell. Vertically, center-justified text typically is the easiest to read. The major exception here is when cells in one row contain significantly different amounts of information. In this case, top-justified text tends to be the most readable.

Visual Interest

Line after line of black and white data in a table can wear down the reader, so show a little mercy by adding a few visual elements.

Color

One common technique is to add background color to your chart. Choose two complementary colors, light enough so they don’t interfere with the text readability, and alternate colors for each row.

You can also use color to help best represent the data. For instance, if a chart contains numbers, you can display negative numbers in red.

The same table with colors in the header and separating each line.
What a difference color makes! We also bolded column headers, readjusted horizontal cell size and removed vertical borders.

Borders and Subheads

Cell borders are another way to add visual interest. This is another area where there are no hard and fast rules, so experiment with the size of borders both horizontally and vertically.

Also, don’t be afraid of using subheads within a table. If a table contains a large amount of data that you can sort easily into logical groups, use subheads to allow readers to quickly jump from group to group.

Avoid Temptation

A word of caution when it comes to visual interest. You don’t want the enhancements to interfere with the purpose of the table: displaying information so that it’s easy for the reader to grasp.

This means avoid any funky shadows, shapes, textures, etc. that detract from the look of the table. The visual elements should make the table easier to read, not more difficult.

Ordering Data in a Table

Lastly, be sure to give some consideration to the data when determining how to organize it in a table. There are almost as many ways to order data as there are tables. This may not add to the aesthetic beauty of the document, but it can make the report significantly more readable. And readable = beautiful.

Is the data showing change over time? If so, your readers are most likely interested in seeing the most recent data first, so order your table thus.

Will a reader want to search for a particular entry? Then consider organizing the table alphabetically or by date.

Does that table contain data showing various quantities for comparison purposes? If so, you may want to sort the columns in ascending or descending order.

Chapter 3: Charts

Charts can be some of the most beautiful elements of a report, especially when compared to plain black and white text or tables that are jam-packed with data.

Even if your strength is data and not report design, you can create informative, beautiful charts that wow your audience.

Before You Begin

Step away from the keyboard and ask yourself two important questions.

ONE: Am I conveying individual data points or am I trying to show an overall trend instead?

As we discussed in the previous chapter, if it’s important that the report reader see the individual data points, go with a table. If not, you’ll likely want a chart.

TWO: What is the purpose of my chart?

Is it to enable the report viewer to identify one key trend? Compare a variety of information points? Allow for many layers of data or just a single one? Once you’ve figured out the chart’s purpose, you’re ready to dig into designing beautiful charts.

Place Elements Appropriately

There are standard conventions for placing elements on a chart. For example:

  • Numbers along axes typically go from small to large, or from oldest to newest in the case of dates.
  • For pie charts with dozens of tiny slices, group the tiny slices into an “other” category so as not to overwhelm the reader with irrelevant information.
  • When labeling data points, don’t show them all; show just a few where notable events happened.

When you don’t follow these conventions, bad things happen.

Think Small

With a smaller chart, the person viewing the document can pick up key information and see the chart in context with other report elements around it.

A good rule of thumb is to make the chart as large as it needs to be in order for the text to be legible and not much larger.

Use Effects Sparingly

You’re probably using some sort of reporting software to generate your charts, which means you have some cool visual effects you can apply with a button push. And you probably have.

Remember that visual effects should enhance your numbers, not detract from them.

Highlight Key Data

A chart, just like a paragraph, should focus on one main idea. If that idea can be conveyed in one sentence, great. If not, use visual cues to highlight key information. (See what we just did there?)

Pay Close Attention to Color

There are millions of colors out there, which means either:

  • You have zillions of wonderful possibilities to create (for you glass-half-full types), or
  • You have zillions of ways to screw it up (for you glass-half-empty types).

Fortunately, there are several principles to help guide your color choices. Here are three key ones:

  • Conventional color combinations. Data can immediately convey information based solely on color choice. “Red light, green light” ring a bell? When used together, green means go, yellow means slow and red means stop. Red and black ink when used with numbers/currency is another charts convention. (But remember that those with color blindness may have difficulty with certain combinations, especially red/green, so use helpful cues such as text.)
  • Predetermined color combinations. The software you are using to create your chart likely offers a range of options you can choose from.
  • Company logos. Ever wonder what your marketing department does all day? One thing they’ve likely done is create a company logo – and they paid very close attention to colors and color combinations when doing so. Take advantage of that knowledge by using those colors, when appropriate, in your charts to reinforce your brand.

By now, you may be asking yourself where you should place these awesome charts in your reports. So let’s move on to document layout.

Chapter 4: Layout

The right report layout does more than make the output beautiful; it also makes the data and information contained within much easier to grasp.

But for a data reporting expert such as yourself, the thought of trying to lay out a good-looking document can be — let’s face it – distasteful. You’re no graphic designer, so the theory goes, so your reports are destined to be limited to a basic layout aesthetic.

Not so. Release your inner designer with the help of the following tips.

Create Beautiful Report Margins

Yes, you need margins. They help focus the reader on the document’s content and make for clean, more readable reports.

There are some accepted guidelines, and you will find them as close as the word processing program on your desktop.

For standard reports – printed on an 8.5 by 11” paper or viewed onscreen – in many cases the output will look great with Microsoft Word’s default values of 1” margins for top, bottom, left and right.

We prefer this to Microsoft Excel’s default values of 1” for top and bottom and 0.75” for left and right, because multiple elements on a page can make a document look too busy; a wider margin helps make the content it contains easier to view.

Three notable exceptions to these guidelines:

  • Reports with elements that need more space. If you have content that you’re trying to fit on a single page you may want to shrink the margins.
  • Onscreen documents. If you know your report or document will be viewed onscreen and not printed, you can sometimes safely shrink the horizontal margins a bit.
  • Bound reports. If you’re compiling multiple pages into a bound report, you’ll probably want to use more margin space for the inside margins so that binding doesn’t obscure the elements.

Lay Out Individual Elements Properly

Report layout tools in Microsoft Office.
Report layout tools in Microsoft Office.

One of the biggest mistakes we see in report layout is when individual elements break in awkward places, such as when one row of a table is placed on the next page, when a paragraph of text has a hyphen on nearly every line, or when a caption is on a different page from the image it describes.

Your template software likely has some built-in tools, so take advantage of them to eliminate these problems.

You can set these tools to apply globally across your document, but that won’t guarantee you the best report layout. Be sure to tweak the output afterward.

NOTE: The names above are the names of the tools in Microsoft Office; your template-design software may give different names to these tools.

Accurately Space and Align Elements with One Another

Remember earlier when we said you don’t have to be a graphic designer to create beautiful layouts?

That’s true, but alignment and space among elements is one area where many of us struggle when laying out reports. Graphic designers have extensive training and experience in learning what looks best on a page, and you won’t be an expert after simply reading this blog post.

But take heart; you can fool just about anyone by employing a couple techniques.

Technique #1: Use white space to increase comprehension.

Technique #2: Deliberately align elements to increase page balance.

Make the Report Skim-able

The bad news: Despite all your hard work, few people will actually read your document.

The good news: They will skim it instead.

Skimming lets readers jump to the parts that interest them AND it helps them get an understanding of the overall report before they decide which portions to go back and scrutinize.

An example report with good subheadings that help the reader skim.
A nice use of subheads for “skim-ability” and individual report element alignment.

Some tools you can use:

Headlines

Subheads

• Bullets

1. Numbered Lists

Bold Text

Titles for Tables and Charts

Numbers Instead of Words: 10

Get Rid of Unnecessary Distractions

When laying out a document, include the elements that need to be included and don’t include the elements that don’t need to be included.

Use Conditional Visibility When Appropriate

Here’s one layout technique that, when done right, your report recipient may not even be aware you’ve used.

Conditional visibility is when items in a document display only under certain conditions. These can be user-driven, such as when a user chooses to drill down to see more detail, or content-driven, when certain content displays only under certain conditions.

Create a Master Template

Lastly, if your template-design tool allows you to create some type of master slide or master template, be sure to take advantage of it when possible. You can set some of the layout properties once (such as margins and footers) and apply them to the entire document, giving it a cohesive, polished look.

There’s another way to add polish to a document. And this leads us to our next chapter, on images.

Chapter 5: Images

Ahh, images: the quickest and easiest way to add beauty to a report.

We’re not talking about charts or tables (although those also add visual appeal). We’re talking about logos, screen shots, photos and the like. They’re often colorful, usually informative, and always wise to consider.

Finding Images

If you (or your marketing team) already have images at your disposal, great. You probably don’t have to look far to find appropriate company logos, product photos or screen shots, employee and office life photos, and images of events relevant to the document’s content.

You can also find and easily download images from the Internet, but a couple words of caution:

  • Keep your images real.
  • Pay attention to copyright.
Image of Shutterstock search bar.

Storing Images

When it comes to images in reports, the most important decision you’ll make is WHERE to store them.

Embedded Document Images

One option is to embed the images into the document. A copy of the image is stored in the document, so it is always available. The bad news is that it’s always available – even when you don’t want it to be.

Images Stored in a Database

Another option is to store them in your database. This limits the size of the report definition, allows you to change an image once and have the change replicated across all reports, and lets you keep records together.

And if you do store images in a database, you may decide to store them as BLOBs, or Binary Large Objects. (NOTE: This video shows how to use Windward to insert BLOBs stored in a database into your report.)

Images Stored in a File System

File systems are great for storing images because you can easily back them up, update and manipulate the images, and move them to a bigger hard drive if you need more disk space.

And remember, if your images are stored anywhere other than in the template, be careful how you reference them. You’ll need to give as much of a complete path to the image as necessary.

Sizing Images

Obviously, images don’t do much good in a report if they’re blurry or much too small, so let’s talk for a second about resolution. Here are a couple general guidelines:

  • If the document is printed, images should be at least 300 dots per inch (dpi).
  • If the document is online, you can get away with a much lower dpi, such as 72 dpi.

Positioning Images

When working with a dynamic reporting solution, positioning becomes crucial. You don’t want to end up with images pushed off the page or in another funky spot.

So at first glance, “pixel-perfect,” absolute positioning, where you place an image at a specific point on the report, sounds great.

But as your report expands and you get a waterfall effect, images in the body of the document can end up in places you don’t expect – or want.

That’s why we recommend you use relative positioning for most images. Here you use some part of the image (top, bottom, left or right) to align the image with a specific element or point on a page.

Final Image Tips

Before we move on to discuss colors, we leave you with a couple tips:

Tip #1: Use non-traditional images. Basic shapes, stylized text, etc. are also images. Keep in mind that images don’t have to be big and colorful to add beauty to your document.

Tip #2: Follow your brand guide. If your company has a brand guide, it likely has a section on using colors that “match” your brand. A simple change to an image — such as editing the color of an icon in the report — can tie the entire report together beautifully.

Chapter 6: Colors

There’s no rule that says your business report or document has to be boring in order to be professional. Using color is a fairly simple and quick technique that will give your reports the brilliance they deserve.

Where to Use Color

First, keep in mind that you don’t need to go overboard. Just a touch of color here or there can add needed “oomph” to your output.

A short bulletpoint list with color added.
A report displaying touches of color.

Obvious places for color include table rows and chart data. You can make a document more impressive with background colors in headers and footers. And inserting a company logo is another great way to insert a splash that isn’t overwhelming.

When using colors in a report, think about how to best represent the data through commonly associated colors.

Tips for Color Combinations

  • Use colors consistently throughout a document. Ask yourself if a particular color is being used to represent more than one thing in a single report. For example, did you use green to represent a competitor’s market share in an internal document? Check to make sure you don’t use that same green for text emphasizing recommended courses of action for your company.
Monochromatic green.
Monochromatic green
  • Monochromes are your friend. Monochromatic colors are great for indicating intensity – think shades on a weather map representing temperature – and for alternating row background colors in a table, among other things.

NOTE: Windward customers can find many monochromatic options for charts and tables right within Microsoft Office.

  • Emphasize your company colors. Your hard-working marketing team has researched colors that combine well and represent your brand. You can use these colors with confidence and get the added benefit of some subliminal messaging.
  • Be understated. Please, don’t confuse “color” with “colorful.” Adding color via muted tones can make your point without overwhelming the report viewer.
  • Use logical and readable combinations. If you’re using colored text on colored backgrounds, keep this basic principle in mind: In general, the lighter the background and the darker the text, the better the contrast — and the easier it will be to read.

Color and Print

If your report will be printed instead of read onscreen, remember that color can get expensive. You may want to cut down on that cost by using fewer colors in your document. One recommendation is to use colors that work well in various shades, such as darker and lighter blue, to give you more flexibility in design.

Final Notes on Color

Lastly, one piece of advice: Don’t rely solely on color to convey information.

No matter how clear and consistent your document colors are, some readers are bound to ignore or misinterpret them. About 8-10% of the U.S. male population has some form of color blindness, so these readers may not be able to see the colors. Older readers tend to struggle with pale blue. Even those with “perfect” eyesight may be viewing your report as a black and white photocopy.

So our final recommendation is to use text and shapes to give context to any color information.

Text, tables, charts, layout, images, color – it seems like there’s a lot you need to take into account when creating a stylish report. We have just one final item to add to the list: navigation.

Chapter 7: Navigation

Navigation is the final touch that can turn your informative document into an informative and beautiful one.

Subheads/Section Titles

An image from Shutterstock with understandable links.
Navigation aids help users quickly grasp a report’s contents.

We mentioned this concept in our earlier chapter on text, but it’s so important that it’s worth mentioning again:

We read by scanning, so use visual clues to help your readers quickly grasp the layout content of a report.

This means separating out key sections with subheads or section titles, such as the four main ones (Subheads, Tables of Contents, Page Numbers and Appendices) you see in this chapter. You allow readers to quickly get a sense of the entire report and to easily navigate to the data or sections that most interest them.

You can also use other “signposts” throughout your report, such as bold text, italics, • bullets and the like to make key information stand out.

Tables of Contents

Tables of contents are for books and not business reports, right?

Not so fast. We’re big fans of tables of contents when used in appropriate cases, such as when the report is on the longer side or the reader might want to skim to see what it contains.

A table of contents is especially useful when the report is viewed online and the reader can click on each listing to jump directly to the content.

Page Numbers

Page numbers resemble tables of contents in that it’s easy to overlook including them when designing your document, but in some situations they can greatly improve that report.

Appendices (and a Note on Footnotes)

You’ve worked hard to collect meaningful data, but sometimes the best place for your data isn’t actually in the report; it’s after the report.

Appendices are also great places for supporting information that is too large for a footnote and for information that is outside the scope of the report but still useful.

Your Report Design Toolbox

We hope you’ve found these tips useful. As you put them to use, remember to let your template creation software do as much of the work for you as possible.

If you find that your current reporting software makes for a clunky design experience, we invite you to see how easy it is to design reports in Windward.

At Windward Studios we believe that reporting and document generation should be simple—not overly complex, tedious and technical. Your reports deserve to look as impressive as the information they contain.

Why can’t designing documents linked to your data sources be as easy as creating a Word document, Excel spreadsheet or PowerPoint deck?

It can. Windward creates software applications that simplify how businesses design and generate professional reports and documents. Windward provides a unique experience using Microsoft Office to format and edit report templates, and the sophisticated engine pulls data from multiple sources and merges that data into those documents. It’s a hassle-free experience that can actually make generating reports fun.

This is not the full white paper. To access the entire white paper download it here.

Download the full White Paper

A Guide to Evaluating Document Automation & Document Generation Products

White Paper | June 2020
Download the White Paper

INTRODUCTION

This guide will walk you through how to determine which document automation solution and document generation product is best for you. No one product, not even ours, is best for all use cases.
This guide only discusses the document template design component. While just a part of any solution, this is generally the most important part as it’s where the lion’s share of users’ time will be spent and limitations in this restrict the types of documents that can be created. So find out how you can start building document generation systems from templates in this article.
DEFINITIONS

Document Automation (also known as document assembly) is the design of systems and workflows that assist in the creation of electronic documents. These include logic-based systems that use segments of preexisting text and/or data to assemble a new document.

Document Generation is the process of creating hundreds, thousands, or even millions of personalized and distinct documents for internal or external use from a single template. While Document Generation is a subset of automation, for some products (not all) you can’t get just the Document Generation component of a Document Automation solution.

Reporting Software is a subset of Document Generation. Reporting software can’t do documents. But Document Generation software easily creates reports.

Tags are elements placed in the automation documentation template (DOCX, PPTX, XLSX) that the docgen system acts on when generating a document. These tags can be data to insert, business logic rules to conditionally display or suppress content, and much more. Each vendor has their own term for “tags.”

NOTE:

Going forward, the word docgen will be used to stand for Document Generation system in this guide. When something is template based Document Automation system, the word docauto will be used.

THE DESIGNER - MICROSOFT OFFICE

Every modern docgen product uses Microsoft Office as the template designer. While you can find a few very old products that have their own designer, you want to limit your consideration to those built on Office as it is far superior.

Some document generation solutions work with Word, Excel, & PowerPoint while others are Word only. If you need Excel & PowerPoint, then obviously, go with a solution that supports them too. If you only need document automation tools using Word, think carefully if you might want Excel or PowerPoint someday in the future.

Again: if you go with a Word document automation solution, be very sure you won’t ever want Excel or PowerPoint. Ever!

Google Docs, Star Office, etc.

The docgen solutions that have a separate addin or no add-in can usually work with any Word processor that can save as a DOCX file. It all tends to work exactly the same. For a full Word clone, this can work every bit as well.

Google Docs in this case though tends to be problematic because Google Docs does not have the layout and formatting capability of Microsoft Word. Not even close. Your limit here is not the docgen app; it’s Google Docs. For most use cases, Google Docs is not up to the job.

CRITICAL FUNCTIONALITY

The following eight items are key to the success of the docgen solution you select. If any of these is a mismatch for your needs and requirements, you will at best have a lousy solution. And you could very well fail. Understanding how each aligns to your use cases is critical to your success.

DESIGNER ADD-IN

Some docgen solutions include an add-in to help you place & edit the tags in the template. These come in two flavors; one much better.

First, some automated document creation solutions have no add-in to assist in crafting tags. You usually end up with notepad open where you write all the various tags and you copy from there and paste into Word. And for special uses, you type in, from memory or other notes, the additional properties.

This “no add-in” approach is slow, painful, & error prone. If you have 5 templates, each with 5 tags – then no big deal. But if every month you’re creating 100 templates, each with 150 tags, you’re now in hell.

FROM OUR CEO

While Windward can legitimately claim to be a "no Add-In" solution for designing on platforms other than Windows - we find that approach so inferior, we state that we cannot be used for this use case.

We prefer to not get your business rather than provide you a significantly inferior approach.

Not only is it slow & expensive, but because it is a death march, designers will not put in the effort to make a business document template shine. They just want to be done.

The second approach (much better) is a second application (usually in a browser) that helps you write tags. You still have to copy & paste between this second app and Word, but the add-in provides all possible choices for tags and helps you write your queries.

Not all the side-by-side add-in approaches are the same. Play with each carefully to see how it works for you; not in simple sample cases, but in the more complex document templates you will need to create.

The third approach (best) is an add-in that becomes part of Word; adding additional tabs to the ribbon. This makes adding and revising tags a breeze because it works on the tag in the template. And while helping to write each tag, it can do so in the context of where it is in the template.

The incorporated add-in approach is by far the best in template based document generation. But by definition, it is limited to Office on Windows.

This add-in is one of the two features (the query wizard below is the other) that determines how much time your team will spend to design document templates, day after day, week after week, year after year. If one approach is 15 seconds longer, and you are going to create 500 templates each with just 35 tags (that’s low), that’s 73 hours.

CODE BEHIND

While all the Document Generation solutions require you write code to call them (docauto is a no-code solution so not an issue), some of them require additional code for each template. This is called “code behind.”

In some cases, this code behind is defining different data specifications, such as you now also need the hire date. For these solutions, you don’t need code for each template, but a fair number of times templates will require additional data, or data ordered differently, and you have a code change.

Even worse, some require code behind for each template. Therefore, each new template based document generation means additional code. This is a giant hit.

Why? First you have programmers involved in template design. That’s expensive and slows the process down. Second, each new template requires rebuilding your application and pushing it through test & staging.

The one advantage to code behind is the developers can build data on the fly as it’s needed, including data generated according to business rules within the code. But in almost all cases, doing so directly in the template, as opposed to in the code behind, is superior.

In other words, you want the template file to be everything.

DRAG & DROP DOCLETS

One (or several) users can create content for a template that are saved off. Then they or other users can drag those saved doclets to drop onto a template. This provides template designers a way to create very complex templates easily by dragging the needed components. It also eliminates repetitive tasks.
For each docgen app, evaluate their drag/drop on the following criteria:

1. How do you create a doclet?
The best solution is to select content in Word and save that as a doclet. If it's more restrictive than this, will those restrictions stop you from creating very useful doclets?

2. Does it bring the full formatting of the doclet into the document it is dropped into?
This is actually a very hard thing to do in Word if the doclet uses styles that exist in the template with the same name - but different settings.

3. What can be saved?
Just template content? Or can you also save datasources, parameters, and more? This is not as important, but it is still a timesaver.

4. After you drop is it complete? Or do you need to perform additional steps? For example, if a doclet uses a different datasource, is that datasource now also tied to the template?
Not that important, but nice to have.

5. Can doclets in a template be updated?
If a doclet is the company logo and the logo changed, can all the templates using that doclet be updated to the new logo universally?

The dropped doclets come in several flavors. The optimum are linked doclets where the content of the doclet is displayed in your template in full, fully laid out and formatted. And as it is linked, when the doclet itself is revised, that change immediately appears in your template and is used in every generated document.

Once you drop a doclet into your template, you can can adjust it any way you wish from formatting to tags in the content. But if the original doclet is changed, that change is not applied in your template. In some uses this is preferable when you don’t want changes applied to existing templates.

The third approach is there is a tag that will import the doclet. You don’t see the contents of the doclet in your template, but when the template is processed, it will pull the live copy of the doclet. This is valuable when you have a select that will determine which doclet to import. This is useful for cases like you need to pull in content based on the State the recipient of the document lives in.

The optimum of course is to have all three flavors available to use each as appropriate.

QUERY WIZARDS

Your most common activity creating templates will be writing the queries to select the data. You do this to select blocks of data such as all stocks you hold for a portfolio statement. You also do this for conditional logic in the template such as adding insurance requirements for an offer letter if they reside in California. Or when placing a name in loan papers.

Some docgen products do not have query wizards. With no wizards, then template creation is a developer-only task. And for developers, it will be slower. No wizards mean you can never turn template creation over to business users.

FROM OUR CEO

You will do this hundreds of times in complex templates. Thousands of times across all the templates. You want this to be quick & easy. This functionality, more than everything else put together, determines how much time you will spend designing templates, and how pleasant it is.

- David Thielen

When you evaluate different document creation automation solutions, have a business user use the system to craft the queries and see how well they do. They’ll be slow & hesitant at first. But it’s key to see if they can learn it and then be successful on their own.

In the case of conditional tags (if, switch, etc.) make sure it also works well on elements returned by other tags (usually the iterative tags). Because in this case, it’s not a query of the data, it’s a condition on data already returned.

Finally, keep in mind that no matter how brilliant the query wizards are, the user will also generally struggle with the structure of the data (the metadata). This can be displayed to the user, but they still need to learn what is where. Reducing what metadata is displayed, providing the descriptions for each node in the metadata, etc., can make the difference between a usable and unusable solution for business users.

MULTIPLE DATASOURCES

If you have a single datasource, then skip this section – you don’t care.

Ok, you have multiple datasources, for example Salesforce & Marketo. And you have documents you want to populate with data from each. In this case you must get a docgen solution that lets you have tags in a single template that are marked for which datasource that tag is to be applied to.

Some automate document generation providers implement this in two passes:  First applying all the Salesforce tags and then starting over and applying all the Marketo tags. This works fine if you are not intermixing the data.

Sometimes you need to intermix the data: for example, if your document lists all Account Executives (from Salesforce) and then within the data for an AE it lists the emails they were sent (from Marketo). Then you need a solution that processes all datasources simultaneously.

If you have multiple datasources, you almost certainly will eventually need the best automated document assembly software that processes multiple datasources simultaneously. If it’s not a must-have today, it probably will be a must-have in a year.

TAGS START & END LOCATION

Some tags have a start and end location, such as the if and forEach (iterative) tags. Generally, these are used to repeat or conditionally include a row in a table or a paragraph of text. All solutions do this.

But as time goes on and you create more advanced & complex templates, you will find yourself wanting to start the iteration in the middle of a table or an if that removes two cells and adjusts the table correctly.

In addition, you almost certainly will need a forEach (iterative) tag that adds columns in a table, as opposed to rows. You may want a column for each product or each month in a dataset. Finally watch out for any limitations on combinations. At the start you need a single forEach tag. A year later you are nesting five forEach tags within each other as it’s the only way to get what you want.

This is an area where it’s impossible to give guidance on what you may someday need. Your best bet is to select a solution that has no limitations on the start & end location.

OPTIONALLY HIDING CONTROL TAGS

For a simple template, this doesn’t matter (much). But as the logic expands in a template, you find that you are adding a lot of control tags. The most common are the iterative (forEach) and conditional (if) tags. But even a moderately complex template will also have numerous query and set tags along with several additional tags.

These tags, if displayed, pollute the template and enlarge the layout in the template. Usually you’ll find the template looks quite different from the final generated report. This makes it difficult to truly imagine the final document from the template. It’s frustrating to have to constantly run test documents to see what you’re going to get.

You’ll be much happier if the designer can at the click of a button hide or show the control tags. Show them when you’re working on the template logic. Hide them when you’re working on the final layout and formatting. This option will save you time and more importantly will make the design experience more pleasant.

Even on something as simple as this table, the ability to hide the control tags is a clear benefit.

IMPORTED TEMPLATES

The best way to use content across multiple templates is to have that content in a child template that the parent templates all import. These imported templates can be brought in as an explicit filename or as a data query that returns the filename.

Trust me: unless your needs are incredibly simple, you need this. You can work around it even if you repeat the same content in 100 templates, but you’re giving yourself too much extra work when wording changes due to company directives or legislation.

One critical detail on imports:  Does the system process tags in the imported child template? If all of your child templates are static text (legal clauses), then this does not matter. But if you need to include anything live (a person’s name, a date, a state of residence), then you need a solution that process tags in the imported child template.

Finally, for Word only, how does it handle style mismatches? If the parent has the Normal style set to Times New Roman 12pt and the child has Normal set to Verdana 10pt, then what should the child paragraphs be styled as? This can be a royal pain because different users never have their styles matching.

Some systems convert the child to the parent formatting. Some retain the child formatting. And some (best solution) give you the option of either. The option is best but if it’s forced one of the two ways, make sure the system you get works that way.

Not having the expected styling on output is guaranteed to get upper management upset.

IMPORTANT FUNCTIONALITY

One of these might be critical to your use case. Several might be useful. But in most cases, none is a must have. They do however provide a picture of the breadth of each product.

FUNCTIONS (MACROS) INCLUDED & CUSTOM

For the solutions that allow queries in the tags, you want one that also supports complex functions operating on the data. And not just simple functions like SUM() and COUNT() but most of what’s available in Excel. You will use Text and DateTime  a lot.

In addition, can you add your own functions? Adding custom functions is often a significant component of providing a simple & easy design experience to business users. It’s also a lot safer.  For complex calculations you write it once in the function and test it carefully. No worries about someone screwing it up writing it by hand in a template.

ACCESS PROVIDERS

All of the products (I believe) support reading files from BASIC, Digest, Negotiate, & Oauth2. But what about a special Authenticate & Authorize you created in your company for one set of files? Or something special to get to a JSON file from a REST service that is home grown?

First off, make sure the solution supports the standard protocols you use. You should get a yes. And if that’s all you have – fantastic; you can skip to the next section. If  you have a home-grown A&A. find out what needs to be done to have the system access it. This is a custom Access Provider. And make sure that the same Access Provider is used for reading data files (XML & JSON), accessing OData, and importing files (templates & pictures).

DOCUMENT LOCKING

If you want to create DOCX or XLSX files where an employee can then edit parts of it, this is incredibly valuable. For example, you are generating portfolio statements and the legal disclaimers and actual financial results must not be changed, but there is a paragraph where the financial advisor can write up more summarizing the performance.

In this case, some of the solutions will carry document locking in DOCX & XLSX (PPTX does not have this) over to the output. So, if the template has locked all except one paragraph, then the generated DOCX will be locked except for that one paragraph.

FROM OUR CEO

Having the document locking functionality tends to make your lawyers very very happy. It eliminates a source of serious legal liability.

- David Thielen

VALIDATION, ERROR & WARNING HANDLING

What is provided here is all over the board. And it’s difficult to get specific about what is most useful to you, as opposed to the next person. The best advice here is just look at what they have and try it out when evaluating.

One tool is validating a template. Not running it, but inspecting it and providing information on errors found. A second tool is to generate the document and deliver a list of errors and warnings. For example, if some content is placed off the page, it was rendered but you don’t see it. In this case it’s useful to have a listing of content off the page.

In this category you can include tag settings -  what to do if a select fails, returns nothing, etc. Some of these are particularly useful but in other cases, you can find yourself investing more time than it’s worth.

PROCESS EMBEDDED OFFICE OBJECTS

What if you are generating portfolio statements using a Word template? It has descriptive text, a chart showing performance, legal disclaimers, etc. But where it has a table showing the actual numbers, you want to place an embedded spreadsheet with the numbers.

Why? Because this way the recipient can open that spreadsheet and then, using Excel, measure that data any way they want. It’s a much-improved portfolio statement and something that makes the recipient go WOW.

If you want this, verify that the document automation vendors you select not only carries embedded objects to the output, but that the embedded object, if a DOCX/PPTX/XLSX file, has tags in it processed. To make good use of this functionality the embedded object must be treated as a live template, not a static document.

If fully implemented, the output to any format, such as PDF, will include the displayed embedded object.


This is generally not required, but it is an opportunity to make people love what you create.

WORD FORM FIELDS

This is a DOCX -> PDF issue. Do you need to have form fields in the DOCX such as drop down, list or check box become the equivalent thing in PDF output? If so, you need to verify that this feature is supported.

In addition, make sure that the initial content/value in the form field can be set from data. If it’s just static values from the template, that tends to not be sufficient for all use cases.

And a suggestion. When you need an empty or checked box depending on data, don’t use a form field. Use the Wingdings characters  and .

EXCEL REFERENCES & PIVOT TABLES

This is two XLSX -> XLSX issues. First, verify that a formula like SUM(D5:D5) expands to SUM(D5:D15) for the case where the row 5, inside an iterative loop, becomes rows 5 to 15. It’s very useful to have the formula adjusted (some products just write the literal value) on the output. This way, when someone adjusts say D7 to see what happens, all the formulas now adjust to that difference.

The same for pivot tables. If a pivot table is for D1:H5 and the generated XLSX now has those rows as D1: H125, the pivot tables are adjusted to match. This is necessary to use the pivot tables in the generated XLSX.

If you’re going to generate XLSX for Excel Power Users, this is key.

CAPABILITIES

These are mostly yes/no items. If you have data in SQL, the product needs to support SQL and you don’t care if it supports JSON. Same for programming language & output formats. So fast check-off here.

PROGRAMMING LANGUAGES

This is not an issue for docauto, just document generation.

There are three ways to call a docgen engine: Direct calls to a library, calls to a RESTful server on premises, and calls to a hosted (SAAS) RESTful server. Ask if they have what you want.

One note on Hosted solutions:  You will be sending data to that system. First, you want to make sure that the vendor is providing adequate security. Second, if your data is not allowed to go outside your country or region (E.U.), find out not just where the default server is, but also the failover server.

If you’re concerned enough about security to be asking these questions, you should probably host the RESTful server yourself. Even if you place it on AWS or Azure, you are controlling access to the server and its location.

SUPPORTED DATASOURCES

If all your data is JSON (or any other type), you don’t have to worry about what else the system can access. With that said, everything is getting more interconnected and odds are sooner or sooner you will have to access other datasource types.

Life is a lot safer if the solutions can use data from SQL, XML, JSON, & OData. (And why OData? 150 other vendor’s datasources, from ACT to Salesforce to Zoho.) Not a deal breaker but it will turn out to be useful.

See if you can create datasets from datasources. This is akin to views in SQL but you are creating them in the template (no DBA needed). And you want them for XML, JSON, & OData too. A good guide to how robust the dataset implementation is–do they basically become another datasource? If so, that’s a full implementation.

Furthermore, it can take time and bandwidth to download the metadata from a datasource. We saw one DB2 database take 28 minutes to download the full metadata (yes – truly!). If you have datasources with large metadata structures, find out if they have a way to read the schema once and reuse that. (This is unlikely to ever be needed for XML or JSON–it’s SQL, OData, & any custom datasources.)

Finally, for XML, make sure it uses the XML schema if one is available.

OUTPUT FORMATS

Check that it renders in the output formats you need. Everyone does PDF, HTML, DOCX, XLSX, & PPTX (last two if they support that template type). Additional output formats might be useful, but odds are you’ll never need them.

Check the accuracy of the PDF output. Everyone is imperfect on this. And in their, and our, defense, Microsoft does not document how Word calculates page layout. It does not specify the calculation between 2 lines of single-spaced text. And it’s impossible to reverse engineer accurately–Word is clearly performing complex calculations, not just using the font metrics.

Everyone does their best. Some come closer than others. Look for a good match but accept it won’t be perfect.

MISCELLANEOUS

Are you still here? Wow – congratulations! We’re now into some features that you may find useful but are unlikely to be major. But these do make good tiebreakers in your decision. And you may find one of the below to be major; for example, output that must be auto-hyphenated.

PARAMETERS

All products have a way to pass parameters to the template to use in the queries. Check that they have all the data types you need (they probably do).

Check that parameters can be set in a select as both a parameter (avoid injection attacks) and as a string substitution if desired. Setting as a parameter is valuable not only to avoid an injection attack, but to handle the cause of passing the name O’Malley.

CONDITIONAL FORMATTING

Excel has conditional formatting for a cell. But Word and PowerPoint do not. If you need conditional formatting, check if the solution you are looking at has it, and if so, if it’s sufficient.

AUTO-HYPHENATION

For output to PDF and a printer, if you want auto-hyphenation, make sure the solutions you are looking at offer it. Most people don’t care about this, or at least don’t care that strongly. But it’s a “must have” for a few.

TAG TREE

Does the designer have a way to show the structure of the tags in the document? And clicking on one, go to that tag? There is no need for this in simple templates. but when you get to 30+ tags it becomes useful. And at 80+ it becomes essential.

If you’ll always be under 50 tags, no big deal. But if you start under 50 tags and will grow to 200+ tags in a template, not having this will become a big deal. So think about where you’ll be in 5 years.

DATA COUNT

If you run a template and it takes forever, or it completes but it’s 2,00 pages long when you expected 2 pages – why? You can ask a DBA and they can track your selects and tell you the problem.

It’s faster & easier if the template add-in has a tool that tells you for each iterative select how many rows of data it returns and how long the query took to complete. From this you can quickly find what is wrong.

Useful, not essential.

GENERATE CODE

This is used once and saves at most 15 minutes - but it is very nice to have. This is irrelevant for the solutions that have code behind – they create code for each template.

For the one-time code to illustrate  what code is needed to add to your application to use the docgen system, it’s ideal if they include a generate code feature that provides you sample code.. And in addition, you know the correct way to call the engine.

Nice, not essential.

DEBUGGERS

Fortunately, these are rarely needed. But when needed, they can be a big time saver. There are several different debuggers that may be in a docgen template designer add-in.

  • Template Debugger - This is a means to step through applying data to a template to generate the document. You want the common features of breakpoints, single step, and viewing all data and state when you brake into the debugger. This helps you debug the business logic in your template.
  • Connection Debugger - This is a means to help you find the right connection string to a datasource. (Usually SQL but it can also be a URL to XML/JSON/OData.) This will attempt the connection and if it fails, provide all exception information. It will also help with writing the connection string.
  • Query Debugger - This is a means to determine why a select is invalid. Again, the main use here is try different selects and then see the exceptions return. It's a fast way to go through trial & error.

As stated above, these are rarely needed so they're in the "useful but not important" category - except that one time you really really need it.

TAGS

Every product has different names for the various tags. Here we use the tag names from Windward, but everyone has most of these.

It’s also important to look at the specific functionality of some tags. Can the import tag optionally insert a section break (Word) before/after the import? Can the forEach tag insert a section break, new workbook, and/or new slide on each iteration? Are bitmap & chart tags actual Office pictures & charts?

  • out
    Place the data from a select at this location
  • import
    Data returns a filename or URL, place what's in that file at this location
  • bitmap
    Some solutions handle bitmaps as part of the out & import tag. Others have a distinct tag for bitmaps (sometimes called pictures).
  • set
    Set the value of a parameter (new or existing)
  • query
    Reads one row of data to be used by other tags
  • forEach, endForEach
    Iterate through the rows of data in the query repeating the template content between them once for each row of data returned.
  • if, else, elseIf, endIf
    Conditionally include content between if and else or else and endIf based on the result of the query. The else is optional. Note: Windward does not have elseIf.
  • switch, case, endSwitch
    Like if but has multiple case statements within the switch.
  • link, endLink
    The query returns a URL for the link. The link is applied to all content between the start and end tag.
  • bookmark
    A link anchor inside the document. The name set from the data.
  • chart
    A chart built from data. Some systems for DOCX/XLSX/PPTX output create an Office chart object (good) while some create a bitmap rendering of the chart (poor).

It's fascinating the power of what you can create with this set of 11 tags. There really is no limit, yet it's with a moderately sized set of constructs. The power is in what each of those do under the covers.

DOCUMENT GENERATION PRODUCTS

Here is a list of document generation software that you can embed into your applications or solutions. The template design functionality is most of what’s key for these solutions.

  • Docmosis
    Generate documents and reports based on templates. Output in PDF/Doc/ODT from Java, PHP, C#, Ruby and more.  
  • Ecrion
    At Ecrion, we make customer communications management software for companies who want to establish genuine connections across multiple engagement channels.
  • Formstack
    Use Formstack document generation software to merge data into custom-built documents. It save hours of time and money.  
  • HotDocs
    No matter your industry or company size, HotDocs from AbacusNext has a solution to help speed up your document creation workflow.
  • Windward Studios
    The Global Leader in Document Generation Solutions. Revolutionize your docgen. Windward provides seamless integration in your CRM or custom apps.
  • XPertDoc
    Our specialty is document generation and automation. Our mission is to enable organizations to digitally transform their document processes.

DOCUMENT AUTOMATION PRODUCTS

Here is a list of Low Code/No Code solutions that provide an end-to-end document automation solution. This guide focused solely on the template design step of these total solutions. You need to also evaluate the additional functionality each provides.

  • Conga
    Conga’s end-to-end AI digital document transformation increases business-critical efficiencies, leads, and revenue generation. Automate for ROI...
  • Formstack
    Use Formstack document generation software to merge data into custom-built documents. It saves hours of time and money.  
  • Nintex
    Nintex is the market leader in end-to-end process management and workflow automation. Easily manage, automate, and optimize your processes with no code.
  • Templafy
    Templafy helps companies perfect every aspect of business document creation. Enable your employees to work faster & within company standards every time.
  • Windward Studios
    The Global Leader in Document Automation Solutions. Revolutionize your document generation. From a comprehensive SaaS or desktop solution, to seamless integration in your CRM, we have you covered. Take advantage of document automation using Word when you choose our software.

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