There are some amazing data gathering visualization tools on the market today that go a long way toward simplifying data analysis and BI for those of us who are not analysts or power users.

Without naming names, some of the best tools are not just the tippy-top console of one proprietary stack of vendor tech. They are standalone interfaces to whatever data source – Web, enterprise or personal database – lies beneath.

We’re finally getting user-friendly design from people who understand how to display data for a purpose. This should come as a great relief after all the years we suffered as one vendor after the next would come up with a great information application and then hand it to developer team to show off. There’s nothing quite as annoying as making a really good idea difficult to use.

Witness the VCR and how great it was when for the first time mere consumers could record television programs to watch later. VCRs were such an attractive product that we didn’t mind the blinking blue 12:00 a.m. displayed in our living rooms year after year. We didn’t want the blinking light, but the content behind it – the nightly news or “The Dukes of Hazzard” – was so desirable that we tolerated it.    

Even now, most hotel alarm clocks are unnavigable for casual users who only want some slim confidence that the thing will actually go off once they’ve set it. It often doesn’t, with significant consequence.

Enterprise software calls for a much higher level of sophistication. To this day, customization is the inevitable by-product of any serious software investment, open source as well as shrink-wrapped. That’s because business software packs a lot of features and options. Some of the IT administrators I talk to spend as much effort during rollouts at hiding specific functionality as they do exposing it.

There’s an explanation for the seeming expanse of uselessness in the enterprise software user experience. When you mix complex functionality with mass production, you’re going to need to serve many different kinds of customers with one large product.

It’s also true that the early eras of ERP or enterprise application integration saw software vendors packaging a lot more functionality in platforms than companies really needed or wanted to buy all at once.

That changed in part with the arrival of best-of-breed vendors, notably in CRM products, that forced enterprise vendors to break their platforms into more digestible chunks.

New tools are much better because casual user experience is part of the design process. It might be operational BI displays that function like 1960s automobile dashboards, the round speedometers and vertical gauges you haven’t seen since your granddad’s Pontiac. This is a good thing for many uses. Classic design has returned because it was invented with analog utilitarianism that fits the way people digest information on a scale of good to bad, or not enough to too much.

Advanced visualization is also much more useful, with drag and drop and iterative displays that adjust to our behavior. We can become aware, seize and make use of these things that have just recently come to market.

With usability approaching an inflection point, business and IT need to share responsibility for learning about and applying these advancements. We can’t afford to be an expectant crowd of business users, who, as conspicuous Web consumers, anticipate that business productivity will be highly useful and simple at the same time.

It has to be a two-way street because business transcends consumerism. Conducting business is much tougher than buying a book because it requires value creation, not merely consumption. IT can customize a slick interface, but it cannot describe what success is for you, nor is that its job.

Over the longer term, as visualizations become user-friendly and increasingly attach more agnostically to more sources of information, self-service will slowly supplant IT and business silos in the hands of the informed consumer.

For now, though, smart business managers can investigate tools and ask, if only for their own purposes, what’s in the pipeline and how it will help make things better. Smart IT managers will learn where value resides and where blinking blue lights can be turned off.

There was a time when I thought all the cool stuff in spreadsheets needed to be turned on by someone else. I ought to be an Excel expert by now, but I am not. It’s no one else’s fault.

We can be sympathetic to business users who are given poor tools because they satisfy someone else’s motive. We can be sympathetic to IT when business users need to be reminded that they need to be more than complaining consumers of information. But we must be producers of value to our organizations. That’s why we were hired, after all.

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