Too much ink and poor dashboard design
In a recent article in Computerworld, Monash University lecturer, Peter O’Donnell said he thinks BI solutions are too sexy, contributing to low utilisation rates.
"A lot of the tools are very sexy. You can do 3D pie charts and donut charts; in theoretical terms it is known as the data to ink ratio. If you have embellishments and 3D effects you are using a lot of ink for only a small amount of data," he said. This he said makes it difficult for your average user to understand the reports generated out of the BI tool.
For some tools there are just too many widgets and buttons and so can end up being hard to use but in my view sexy isn’t the problem. If a BI tool is easy to use and provides the professional business user with an easy to use interface then what is going to stop high take up rates. In reality BI utilization rates are actually growing you see analytics almost everywhere in many different forms. So for those BI vendors that are easy to use and do have some of that sexy functionality you don’t want to confuse implementation with what is often required in the sales process.
The argument that vendors are culpable in the delivery of poor implementations of BI projects does not take into account the fact that vendors are driven to provide the "extra ink" with bells and whistles during the sales cycle and lets be honest, implemented well, the bells and whistles can look awesome and really help to sell product.
O’Donnell refers to Edward Tuffe in terms of Ink and quite frankly his comments are not an accurate fit when discussing modern BI tools. Tuffe was talking about too much Ink back in 1975 when the main place people came across charts and data visualisation was in newspapers where artists emphasised the slant of the article through exaggerated graphics. BI tools just don’t do that. They are logic driven – the data that is presented cannot be manipulated that way.
Having said that, vendors have been guilty of creating bloatware, for example, the bouncing flash chart. It’s painful to wait for the bouncing to stop so you can see the value of the data, but as I see it – it’s a bit like McDonalds. We all know we shouldn’t eat it BUT someone keeps coming back and asking for more.
So what makes people buy the sexy BI tools? Is it because traditionally BI tools were overly expensive and mainly sold to top executives? And were these top executives choosing “the bouncing charts” just to show off to their mates? Because it is clear that vendors are being asked to include them? After all vendors don’t develop product for the fun of it – new releases and upgrades are based upon getting a positive return on investment.
If we could somehow stop the demand for things like the rotating 3D pie then all would be good. Unfortunately, I cannot see how that will change in the short term (not that I am a huge fan of even the basic 3D pie anyway!).
Having said that the landscape is changing. Today analytics and the expectation of a clean ‘low ink’ delivery style is becoming more pervasive. A good example of this is Google Analytics. At Yellowfin, we often have customers referring to Google Analytic dashboards when describing the type of BI deployment they want. That’s not to say that Google is perfect but some of the things they do is clever and great design. The interesting point is that people refer to it as a benchmark.
With the evolution of the web – customers and vendors alike are able to easily research all the BI tools available and are deciding for themselves what tools work for them. The light at the end of the tunnel is that users will over time narrow down to what works well for them – a form of natural selection if you like. I think that the standards for BI presentation will evolve similar to the way in which users have a fundamental expectation about how they use a website. If you ask an average person what they want in a website they couldn’t tell you but they know intuitively what works.
Another trend is that today’s business people have greater analytical skill and are essentially ‘knowledge workers’. Why, because they have to be – there’s far more data, there has been a whole generation that have had access to tools such as Excel. These professionals need to monitor, interpret and communicate that data to their key stakeholders. As a result they are becoming savvier in the way in which they present that data.
What is interesting though, is the fact that there is a debate starting about ‘what is good report design’ in terms of delivery, I could not agree more. Traditionally BI tools were the domain of IT rather than business users. Very little focus is given to the design of content and the information it is intended to convey. Report and dashboard development is all too often a technical process not a design one. Now with BI tools such as Yellowfin that are have been designed specifically for the business professional the experts in communication now have the ability to select the way in which they want to visualise and deliver data to their peers.
At Yellowfin, we are going to do our bit, clearly there are some things we do to help sell our application but at the same time we make sure that it does not get in the way of ease of use. People can quickly and easily build reports and data visualisations that they need to help them in their knowledge work. Sometimes there is a place for the bell and whistle – often it’s about the right choice of bell and whistle to draw the users attention to what they should be looking for in the data.