Rethinking the Pentaho Report Designer Layout
The Pentaho Report Designer (PRD) has evolved to a very feature-rich product. In this article I want to point out one problem that I still have with this product from a usability point of view.
Imagine following scenario: You are about to create a new report for your CEO. In a nutshell the report should have first a summary cross-tab with the essential KPIs and then below some more detailed product data in a standard table (let's keep it simple).
Now currently you would create the product report/table in the body of your main report and then you would add a subreport to the header, which would reference the cross-tab which lives in a separate reporting file. Now that might all have a technical reason why PRD is set up like this, but from a usability point of view, it is just not an ideal solution. This is a simple example, imaging if we would have to include more subreports in the main report. Another problem with subreports is that you don't really see in the main report if the layout of the subreport is in harmony with the rest of the main report. You have to execute the report in order to see this, then go back to the subreport, execute it again, check if it is fine and if not you have to go back again.
Now it is all easy to sit here and write these lines if you are not involved in developing PRD. I am writing this article as a constructive criticism because I am a big fan of PDR and want to see it become the best report designer. For me, from a user perspective, it would be way easier if PRD offered report type elements that you could drag and drop onto the canvas, just as you would do it now in PRD 3.5 with labels, charts etc. This way you would not be force straight away to follow a specific given structure (Imagine the case where I would only have one chart in a main report in the header and the reporting body/details would be completely unused).
So let's say we would have report elements like "Crosstab Report","Classic table report", etc that you just drag and drop onto the canvas when you need them. Within those elements you define all the necessary settings and you create all the necessary other elements. We are doing this in the same window (we don't have to go to a different window). We control all our data connections in one place and we see all our design in one place.
Over the time Pentaho might introduce various other report type elements, that you then can just drag and drop on the canvas as well. Overall I think that this approach would facilitate designing a report. PRD 3.5 was a huge step forward and I am positive that we will see great new features with the next versions.