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Beauty and the beast. The changing face of Business Intelligence

Guest blog post by Gordon Laing, Author at Barrachd.

The story is timeless. A hideous hero, shunned and forgotten by society; that is until a brave act reminds us that beauty is more than skin deep. To gasps of horror, our hero wins the heart of the love-interest, saves the day, etc etc. The end.

The reason such stories prevail? Well, they still reflect reality… We’re drawn in by beauty. We’re preprogrammed to appreciate the finer aesthetics in life. We are, in short, superficial creatures.

This bias towards beauty is more than evident in the business world. End-consumers are design-savvy. Not only does something have to work well. It has to look damn good too.

But form shouldn’t sacrifice function. In fact, the reverse is true. Tech giant Apple is synonymous with the concept of a design-led business. “Design is a funny word,” said its founder Steve Jobs. “Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works.”

In no area is this more apparent than analytics. There are times when today’s BI consultant has to double up as designer. When you invest in a reporting dashboard, you don’t want it to just report, you want it to impress. You want your peers to be jealous, your clients to be dazzled, your staff to be engaged. You want it to work.

Number One App

With the normalisation of ‘always-on’ technology, taking analytics mobile (often making them outward-facing too) has provided the perfect opportunity for Business Intelligence to flex its creative muscles.

One of our BI consultants, Nik, was recently given a brief from a leading financial firm. It was to create a mobile dashboard for management reporting. The brief was short… “Make it impossible to dislike”.

Short, however, doesn’t equate to simple. ‘Impossible to dislike’ translates to ‘intuitive’, ‘informative’, ‘relevant’, ‘interactive’, ‘engaging’ and, just as importantly, ‘beautiful’.

Design isn’t always the natural territory of the analytics consultant. Left brain versus right. But by adopting techniques and methods more commonly associated with design, and armed with a powerful and creative toolset, the creative challenge was accepted. Nik set out to create their number one app!

Storyboarding

“We started by storyboarding – drawing pictures and sharing them. We drew up loads,” says Nik. “Storyboards really encourage change and creativity. Doing this in Report Studio is going to take a lot more time than scribbling it out on paper – it excludes the opportunity for experimentation too. Besides, it’s fun to screw-up the paper and start again.”

“We took a design approach that allows a gameful experience. We wanted management to open up their iPad and be curious, to discover and play with the data. So we included lots of visual cues to show when their interaction causes change.”

The resulting dashboard included customised cartography and geo-spacial reporting. But while the the use of mapping looks great, maps aren’t just there to make the reports look shiny. The ability to click through means that they give insights that would be difficult to glean otherwise. Drilling into each country for specific detail or being able to group unique areas together to gain a customised insight is essential for the client, especially in a sector that is heavily regulated.

Taking a step back and thinking about the user isn’t new, but it’s important. “We often get carried away with the technology that we now enjoy, but by really putting ourselves in the shoes of the end user, by letting them drive the project, we’ve created something that’s more engaging and more usable,” continues Nik.

RAVE

Data visualization is in the middle of a remarkable growth phase. Demands have rocketed. This clamber for visually dominant tools has elevated the likes of Tableau and Qlikview from challenger status in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for BI, moving them alongside the BI leaders (like IBM Cognos).

Admittedly, in the past Cognos has not been celebrated for its aesthetics. But this has changed. Big time. The introduction of RAVE visualizations (IBM’s Rapidly Adaptive Visualization Engine), particularly when used with Active Reports, means that Cognos can create customised, interactive visualizations way more powerful and every bit as beautiful as those found anywhere else. Plug into Cognos Mobile and ‘boom’ – there’s your data in an easy to access, beautiful, engaging, interactive and intuitive format, right on your tablet. Sophisticated reports, complete with offline drill-through.

Design is a method of putting form and content together. Design should be simple, but that’s why it’s so complicated. Good design can be the difference between satisfaction and delight.

But is there an argument to employ designers as part of a BI team? As more and more analytics solutions face outwards to clients and stakeholders, there’s a growing stake for the importance of design in Business Analytics. However, skilled consultants are used to adhering to strict corporate brand guidelines; they are savvy enough to nod to current design trends and sensitive to aesthetic demands. Still, if the dashboard doesn’t engage the user then it’s a failure. If it isn’t intuitive, it’s failed again.

We’ve created numerous, unique data dashboards for very different clients. Interactive, customised analytics, polished to a shiny finish too! However, our consultants are always looking for a new challenge.

Data – by its nature – is creative. It tells stories. But giving it the freedom (but also the structure) to tell these tales is crucial – and the engagement that comes from being able to interact is significant. It’s maybe apt that the last word is reserved for IBM luminary Thomas J Watson: “Design must reflect the practical and aesthetic in business but above all, good design must primarily serve people.”

Simple. Or is it?

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