Let’s talk about something a little different today – how using tables to lay out data and information can make you more productive.
A Bit of an Introduction
Earlier this year we made something of a push to use tables more and more at Asian Efficiency. Part of it was moving from text files and Google Docs to an enterprise-grade wiki like Confluence. Part of it was also wanting a better way to simplify ideas, processes and the presentation of data – without resorting to horrendously layered bullet point lists.
So we thought a bit about different ways to present data.
First up are mind maps, which we absolutely love. Mind maps are great for creative information and for anything where there is related data that isn’t in a set (i.e., no numbers and quantities attached). We use Mind Manager for mind mapping at Asian Efficiency, but the app has a lot to catch up on in terms of online collaboration.
Next up are flow charts diagrams – think Visio or OmniGraffle. We use these a bit, but not too much as they are hard to collaborate on… and it isn’t quite the same as drawing them up on a big white-board when everybody’s in the room.
The last big thing was tables. These are great for all sorts of different uses, which we’re going to present in this article.
There’s something interesting about tables.
They’re still used heavily in Excel and other spreadsheet applications, especially in corporate… but they’ve gotten quite elaborate with color coding, macros and all sorts of other things.
The idea of a “table” is a bit of a dirty word in the web design world – where tables have been deprecated as a layout option and replaced by layers instead.
This being said, tables are EXTREMELY useful for presenting simple data as well, as we’ll see.
How We Use Tables
Let’s dive into the examples. Here’s how we use tables in a variety of different ways at Asian Efficiency.
1. Simple Data by Team Member
One of the easiest ways to use tables is simply to list team members down one column, and different sets of data down the other columns.
While this table is incomplete, it does demonstrate how a simple table is much nicer than writing things out in prose or bullet points.
Having to write this:
- Flying in from: N/A (BKK)
- Flying out to: N/A (BKK)
- Arrival date: N/A (BKK)
- Departure date: N/A (BKK)
…is kind of unwieldy when you have to do it for many people.
Another quick example is this table that we use to store everyone’s immediate contact information.
2. Meeting Agendas
We also use simple tables to plan meeting agendas.
Here’s what it looks like:
At the very simplest we want to identify the item, who is talking about it (can be more than one person), and the notes for discussion or the outcome of the discussion.
I know that some teams also like to add in a time limit for each item, which can be good if your meetings tend to run over time.
Retrospectives are a concept from an Agile development methodology called SCRUM.
We use them at Asian Efficiency periodically to identify things that have gone well, things that could have gone better, any surprises and any lessons that we can/should/will take away from the work that’s just been completed.
It looks like this:
As you can see the columns I mentioned above are intersected by different sections that we find important, like teamwork, technology or process.
While we could have done this in prose or in bullet points – again, it gets unwieldy if when we have to list 4 categories across 6 different areas.
The classic place to use tables is in planning.
I’m not talking about a traditional project plan like a gantt chart, but a simplified plan like this one:
It simply shows time down one side (in whatever units we want), then 2 sets of data in the other columns.
You can use this in a variety of applications. For example, in our strategic plans, the first columns is for priority, the second for name (of the item), the third for accountability, the fourth for measure and the last for a benchmark.
Now if you want to get a bit fancier, you can create more elaborate tables that include bulleted/numbered lists within the table, like this one for the contents of our updated OmniFocus Premium Posts:
While this example is specific to us, it can be easily adapted for any other product under development or anything that needs a structured layout really.
5. Meta-data and presentation
Another simple use of tables is to present structured metadata and to simply make something look neater.
Take this example:
This could also have been this:
- Target release: 2.0
- Epic: (URL)
- Document status: Final
But it looks a lot better in table format.
6. Daily Updates
The last thing that we like to use tables for are our daily updates, which we post on our intranet to keep the rest the team informed.
Mine looks like this:
Now I like tables. So I have merged sub-headings, coloring, different heading levels and so on.
This could also have been a bullet list, but it is much, much clearer as a table.
Principles for Using Tables
While I don’t think that there are any hard and fast rules for using tables to powerfully present data, but here are a few that we’ve come up with to use internally:
- Tables are great when you need multiple dimensions to the same set of data (e.g., people, SKUs, priorities etc).
- If you need to number a table, do it down the vertical axis (in a column).
- Put your headings across the horizontal axis and make them stand out.
- Do use highlighted, bold and colored cells to make them stand out.
- Don’t be afraid to get a little fancy with using bulleted or numbered lists in your tables, or other options like horizontal rules.
- Remember that you can merge table rows and columns to create a hierarchy of subheadings within a table.
We think that tables are making a cool comeback – especially as more teams move online and need to collaborate more simply AND effectively.
I hope that some of our examples have been helpful, and if you have any uses that we haven’t thought of, we’d love to hear about them!
Discover the 1 Lifehack of Highly Successful People
This one lifehack led to the biggest breakthrough of my career. People like Steve Jobs and Oprah have used it to catapult their success, and now you can too.