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Jane vs. Tierney: Jane's review of Zoho Reports

This review is part of the Jane vs Tierney series, where we review tools for nonprofits. Find out what it's all about and check out our previous challenges on email newsletters, online event registration, document collaboration and team project management. This review is part of our fifth challenge, on dashboard tools.

For this challenge I wanted to choose a tool that will make it easier for users to both analyze and display their data. The reason for this is because while most of us all have an Excel spreadsheet with some sort of data in it, it is not always easy to make sense of what the data means. I also wanted to find a tool where it’s easy for teams to access the same raw data and be able to slice and dice them in different ways without worrying about messing up the data.

Zoho Reports is a cloud based tool that is both affordable and easy to use. It is a part of a larger suite of products that Zoho offers to small to medium sized businesses and organizations. A free version of Zoho Reports is available for 2 users with up to 10,000 rows of data. Paid versions of Zoho Reports start at $50/month.

Getting Started

Because Zoho is web based, getting started required little tech knowledge. Signing up for Zoho Report is extremely easy; you can also use your existing Google, Google Apps, Yahoo or Facebook account. After you sign in you can choose to import your data from an existing data source or enter it manually. The spreadsheet-like interface would be very familiar to most users. What I love about Zoho is the flexibility to work with data of all types, from .csv, excel, html files to web based apps like Google Spreadsheet to robust database systems such as Oracle and MySQL.

For this review, I decided to use an Excel spreadsheet with call data from TechSoup Canada customer service: who called, at what day/time, who answered the phone, and how long they spoke for (this data is tracked automatically by our phone system so I just needed to export it). To complement this data, I also used a Google Spreadsheet which lists the topic of each call we receive. Each time we get a call, we log it using a web form that feeds directly to this spreadsheet.

Working with Data

I found that Zoho Reports works best with clean, raw data (i.e. no analysis such as subtotals, sums or graphs has been done yet). When I imported my spreadsheet, one of the features that impressed me was Zoho Report’s ability to interpret date formats. They offered every conceivable date format to make sure the data is imported properly. It was important to get this right so that later on I could generate reports based on a date range.

Importing a spreadsheet into Zoho Reports

(I had originally tried importing pre-analyzed data into Zoho Reports, in the form of our current spreadsheet marketing dashboard that I was hoping to visualize. However it had trouble dealing with the irregular format that the data was in. This is how I realized that it prefers raw data - ironically, the exact opposite of Tierney’s experience with SAP Dashboards.)

Since the call topics spreadsheet is in Google Spreadsheets, the import process worked a bit differently. Rather than having to upload it periodically, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could schedule regular imports! While this is not “real time” per se, not having to import data manually if you use Google Spreadsheets is a huge win for me.

Importing a Google Spreadsheet in Zoho Reports

Syncing with Google Spreadsheet in Zoho Reports

Creating a Report

Once the data is imported, Zoho Reports will offer to automatically generate reports for you based on the data entered - so you can use these or create your own. For those of us that are familiar with Excel charts, Zoho Reports offers similar functionality to help you graph your data. You can select the type of chart you want and then drag and drop the data to the axis you want.

Creating a chart in Zoho Reports

For the data nerds out there, Zoho Reports can combine data from multiple sources and offer  advanced data analysis options such as the ability to generate SQL queries on the imported data. This offers the flexibility to analyze data from multiple tables, sources and with complex parameters.

Building a Dashboard

Once you have created your charts, summary tables or pivot tables, you can then create a dashboard to show all of them in one place. Similar to creating reports, you can simply drag and drop the chart or table you want to the section of the dashboard you would like.

Building a dashboard in Zoho Reports

The dashboard is completely interactive, so you can use filters to control which data is displayed for multiple charts and tables (e.g. the date range you want to view). At a chart level, you can tweak how you want the information to be displayed by using filters, or you can use the the checkboxes in the legend to take data out of the graph. There is also the option to drill down to the underlying data in a chart by clicking on the relevant area.

Example of the call topics chart in Zoho Reports

Collaboration, Sharing & Exporting

Another aspect of Zoho Reports that stood out to me is the sharing and collaboration. You can share the imported data with multiple Zoho users or groups, allowing them to create their own reports and dashboards, which is great for internal team-based data analysis. You can also share your finished reports and dashboards with other users, and control whether they can simply view the report or the underlying data as well.

If you want to share your dashboard outside Zoho, you can publish it. Once published, you can either embed your dashboard on your website (Zoho will automatically generate the HTML code for you) or you can generate a unique URL for the dashboard which you can share.

Zoho Reports also allows for a wide range of exporting options. You can export your dashboard in HTML format to allow for even more customization. Alternatively, you can export the dashboard as a PDF - with one report per page, or with the same layout as your dashboard. In addition, for every report or chart you generate in Zoho Reports, you can export the views in CSV, PDF, HTML or Excel format. For the paid versions, you can even schedule exports to happen on a regular basis.

Summary

Overall my experience with Zoho Reports has been very positive. The ease of setup, importing of data and integration with third party apps like Google Spreadsheets made it easy for me to concentrate on thinking about my data instead of focusing on getting the application to work. It was very intuitive to use for beginners and offers advanced data analysis options such as SQL queries for the data nerds out there. The collaboration functionality makes it easier for multiple people to work from the same raw data. As a result of all of this, I was able to make a great dashboard that shows me my important metrics, and lets me dig deeper when I need to.

My two wishlist items for Zoho Reports would be the ability to auto-sync from an Excel spreadsheet that is stored in the cloud (similar to the current functionality for Google Spreadsheets), and having more rows of data in the free plan (10,000 rows seems like a lot, but I used it up quickly).

I think Zoho Reports would be a great option for small to medium sized nonprofits are interested in being more data-informed and would like to generate reports from data that is changing on a regular basis.