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Intuitive Corporate Performance Dashboards For Non-Technical Business Users

by Ken Chong, Strategy CompanionTuesday, May 13, 2008

By Bob Abernethy,
Vice President, Customer & Partner Solutions
Strategy Companion Corp.

According to many 12-step and similar programs designed to help people overcome disabling addictions, the first step to recovery is to admit you have a problem. It’s high time for the Business Intelligence (BI) industry to admit to a long-standing problem which even now still continues to plague BI software: most of it is just way too complex for typical business users to learn and use, and too complex even for most IT departments to efficiently deploy and support.

Too many BI projects fail because of ease-of-use issues.  It is in the best interests of both end users and IT departments to deploy BI solutions that enable a genuine self-service environment where non-technical end users can create and modify reports and dashboards independently, create their own ad-hoc queries, and perform their own interactive analysis.  No one benefits when users are dependent on the IT department.

Creating performance management dashboards and reports needs to be simple and truly intuitive. Let’s look at several features designed to make creating and using BI reports and dashboards almost as easy for your non-technical business users as the ever-popular games on their PCs. And believe it or not,  it is almost as fun.

A Great Client for Your Business (Intelligence)

Providing all BI functionality through a 100% zero-footprint browser client makes life a lot easier for both your users and the IT department.  IT will not have yet another client-based application to maintain while making sure all users have the correct and updated version of the client software on their machines – and that it is compatible with all their other software, as well as their PC hardware. Report developers, administrators, and end users all should be able to access the complete functionality of the BI solution from anywhere they can access the Internet, without having to go through the IT department in order to find, download, update, learn, and troubleshoot any client software at all.

The only software that should be needed is what the user already has – Internet Explorer.  And since the user is already familiar with the IE environment, this helps make the BI solution easy to access and learn.  From an IT department perspective, there should be nothing to install or update on anyone’s desktop or laptop – it should be a server-based install, period.   

It’s not enough though, to deliver the complete functionality of the BI solution to all types of users through a zero-footprint Internet Explorer client. It’s also important to deliver all that functionality within a single Web browser instance. In other words, let just one Internet Explorer window deliver multiple reports, each with multiple pages, each page containing one or more components such as pivot tables, charts, dashboards, scorecards, embedded Web pages, GIS maps, heat maps and Reporting Services reports.  The reason this is important is that we don’t want users to have to deal with multiple browser windows, hunting and searching for the right one with the report they need right now, and awkwardly moving, resizing, and minimizing multiple browser windows. The idea is to create a friendly, familiar, productive, and very easy-to-use environment for all types of users, regardless of their skill levels or their job roles.

Intuitive BI – Easy to Use, Hard to Build  

Here’s something else the BI industry needs to come to grips with: the days of users spending days on end trying to learn how to use a new BI application are over. This is especially true when you are attempting to roll your BI application out to a wider group of users than the traditional audience of a few select executives and business analysts.

An intuitive, what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSIWYG), easy-to-use drag-and-drop interface is essential in enabling users to learn the application quickly, increasing productivity, increasing user satisfaction and adoption rates, while also reducing dependence on IT.  The problem is, building BI solutions that are this easy to use is hard to do. It’s not easy to build an application that is easy to use. This is why there are so many complex, hard-to-use BI systems on the market – and also why traditional BI systems have such notoriously high failure rates.

To make it very easy to build reports and dashboards, the BI solution needs to be designed from the get-go for non-technical business users with varying levels of skills. The BI solution should provide an easy-to-learn freestyle layout capability with drag-and-drop functionality which lets users place charts, tables, dashboards, scorecards and other components wherever they want them to be.   

Not only is drag-and-drop easy and efficient, but equally important, users are already familiar with it.  With freestyle layout, users can move components and adjust their size, color, and more, as easily as playing Solitaire on their PC.  It makes no sense to install a BI system which requires users to attend training classes, learn obtuse commands, read hefty manuals, or call the IT department just to figure out how to move a chart from the left corner of the dashboard to the right corner, as just one example of many.

To make accessing the analytics easy, users need clear, easy-to-understand  prompts in simple English - or whatever their native language happens to be.  Context-sensitive menus can guide the user and simplify the user experience by providing menu choices with 1- or 2-click access to all BI capabilities.  Choose and click - that’s all users should need to do. The menus should incorporate a user-friendly design and be free of industry jargon or words and symbols that would confuse or intimidate the typical user.

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