Time to get mobile

In most organisations, BI reports are a strange animal from a user experience perspective: Although the technology behind them has been changing constantly, and continues to change, their look and feel and behaviour remains more or less constant.

Despite the fact that with most BI tools today reports are essentially web applications (Or local applications with some of the Business Discovery tools), they still try to mimic one of two media: the paper or the spreadsheet. In other words, most BI reports strive for an outcome which can be exported to either PDF or Excel, even though BI reports and dashboards are basically web sites or apps, and as such are capable of so much more than a spreadsheet or a piece of printed paper.

While some of the blame is probably with report authors who are sticking to the old list and chart paradigm, it is also likely that part of the issue is cultural: It’s quite common for end users to request specifically the ability to export the report. But as it is in many cases, it is the job of the professional consultant to point out that in many cases, this is old-world thinking, and to try to see how to relieve the end user from their daily spreadsheet exercise.

But why do reports and dashboards and other analytics products need to change? Why fix that which isn’t broken? The fact is that modern technology allows us to do much more with our BI reports than a static PDF-ready chart or a lengthy spreadsheet-ready list. On top of that there are many good reasons why reports need to change the way they look and feel. However, I feel that the main drive to finally make reports and dashboards better is the one related to the medium.

The medium is the message

Marshall McLuhan, the great thinker of communications, coined the phrase “the medium is the message”. He meant that the same message, delivered in different media, would be perceived differently because the medium embeds itself into the message. And nowadays, data is consumed not only on paper or on computer screens, but also on mobile screens of only 4 inches. This dramatically changes the amount and size of objects that can be displayed on a single report or dashboard.

I hold that this is a good thing: when done professionally, the process of developing for smaller touch screens is not different than the process a student undergoes when they have a word-count cap for an essay. The real-world obstacle drives reflection and forces efficiency – leave nothing but what’s absolutely necessary. The great data visualisation guru, Stephen Few, calls this process “Eloquence through simplicity”.

A very good methodology for understanding how to purify the necessary insights to display, and get rid of all the surrounding noise, is by carefully and meticulously defining key measures, how they are measured, and what are their important contexts. Raising these questions with end users and stakeholders means we’re able to identify the key measures and their desired context. Then, we need to understand which visualisations are required to display the necessary measures, with their context, in a meaningful and easy to understand way.

Data visualisation, when done properly, allows us to gain insights from heaps of data on very little space. Take for instance the invention of Edward Tufte, the visualisation expert: the sparkline. The sparkline allows us to give a measure context over time, using very little space. The sentence “Sales started off a bit slow this year, but spiked up around April, and they continue to grow since” can be summarised by this little visualisation in the length of a single word:

Visual efficiency for mobile

Just like the sparkline, there are other solutions that allow us to compress data into easy to understand capsules that provide quick insights from plenty of data, in as little room as possible. This is done by carefully weeding out everything unnecessary, then planning precisely how to display the necessary data. The output is information that is well organised, easy to understand and fits comfortably in the palm of your hand, rather than on a big spreadsheet.

In terms of user experience, the mobile medium requires that we eliminate almost entirely anything that isn’t data – what Tufte calls “non-data ink” – by using context menus, menus which are hidden behind a small button (Sometimes referred to as “hamburger menus”), and floating action buttons. We turn to Google, Microsoft and, of course, Apple, to see how they do things and implement their ideas in our reporting applications. Think about the last time you used the Gmail app for instance – how everything you needed to do was right there, without taking up space that should be filled by email. A report should do just that.

Just like the process of avoiding long lists and space consuming charts and replacing them with clever visualisation has the added benefit of identifying and defining the most important measures, so does the process of reducing the non-data ink for functionality have the added benefit of reducing the amount of buttons, prompts and clicks and polishing the overall user experience.

As data size grows and screens size lessens, BI reports and dashboards must adjust, and development paradigms that have been in place for years must shift. The medium has changed, and the message must adapt.

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