In today’s search for information, the business intelligence user experience is disorienting and frustrating. It is much like driving in a city during rush hour and stopping to change cars every block. Why would we want our users to have that type of complicated, discouraging experience?

Today’s business users are people who utilize the Web day in and day out. They are consumers, and they wield a lot of clout. They are accustomed to using applications that are very responsive to their needs. Consumer-facing applications today enable people to read books before buying them, view products from every angle, even customize goods and services before making a purchase. If one business does not provide such amenities, consumers can simply move on to another that does, all through a browser, in the comfort of their home. This puts a lot of pressure on businesses to meet consumer expectations; these consumers are not just prospective customers but in many cases are also employees, and they bring their high expectations to the workplace.

In fact, this amazing growth in consumer power has made it a necessity for businesses to create a new type of Web application, often referred to as rich Internet applications. This is not just true in the consumer arena. Once people use business-to-consumer RIAs, they expect to encounter them everywhere, whether as a business partner or as an employee, for business-to-business and business-to-employee interactions.

Businesses that decide to provide this array of RIAs – for B2C, B2B and B2E – will need to invest in robust back-end server capabilities that can scale, in microseconds, to meet the demand of thousands of users, as these applications often catch on quite quickly and breed their own success. In addition to scalability, this server also needs to provide comprehensive access to disparate data, reliability, security features and improved performance.

Companies need to have a comprehensive platform from which they can deliver compelling BI and information applications that engage this new breed of consumer/user. The applications should also improve efficiency, reduce costs and create competitive advantage. The platform should continually evolve and grow with changing information needs, changing Web experience and changing expectations of consumers/users, while also providing a seamless, unified user experience tailored to his or her needs. In order to provide a unified user experience, the software needs a uniform design, under the cover of one flexible server.

Let us consider a scenario in which a user is seeking specific information. He is in charge of overseeing the supply of widgets in a warehouse, and in order to ensure that the widgets are delivered to customers in a timely fashion, he needs to take the following steps:

  1. Find out how many warehouses there are in the country and worldwide.
  2. Identify which warehouses stock the widget.
  3. Determine when the widget is shipped out of each warehouse. He will need to determine the current number of widgets in stock after the widget has shipped. If he obtains the number before the widget is shipped, he will be working with a phantom number.
  4. Find out how often the widget is sent out of the warehouse in order to schedule shipment.
  5. Find out what percentage of the stocked inventory is defective.

When considering where all this information may reside and what is involved to gather the required data, doesn’t this sound like driving in chaotic city traffic and having to change cars every block? Instead of going through all of the above steps, the user should simply be able to gather needed information with a comprehensive application.
The software should provide a user-friendly, customizable dashboard that does not require IT assistance. It should also organize and present data that is retrieved and integrated from different sources in real time, without the need for multiple tools.

The software should also have the following capabilities:

  • A unified product suite.
  • The ability to develop and deploy custom BI applications with minimal IT help.
  • The ability to change the customized application as needed.
  • Collaboration capabilities, such as access to data stored in disparate sources, with multiple delivery formats and open application program interfaces.

Collaborative Software Architecture

Collaboration capabilities are a key part of comprehensive BI software. Here are some do’s and don’ts of creating a collaborative software architecture.

Do’s:

  • All tools must be browser-based, with support for all types of browsers, such as Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Apple’s Safari, which is used on the iPhone. All mobile devices available should be supported.
  • All key performance indicators should be dynamic and customizable (see Figure 1 for some sample KPIs).


  • Users should be able to select KPIs of their choice and drop them on a customizable dashboard. They should also be able to create new KPIs from existing ones.
  • Users should be able to interact with – and drill down on – individual KPIs to answer specific questions.
  • All dashboards should be dynamic and customizable (see Figure 2 for a sample dashboard).


  • Provide flexibility to add, modify or remove dimensions and measures, as well as change the order of dimensions and measures.
  • Provide WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) support for any user interface.
  • Accept the fact that Excel is going to outlive us all. Provide support for integration with Excel and the ability to perform what-if analysis on the exported spreadsheet.
  • User experience should be personalized to each individual user.
  • Open source should be the first choice, as it will result in an open architecture.
  • Every deliverable supplied to the user should be visual and highly interactive.
  • Consider selecting a product suite that combines querying, reporting and analysis capabilities for multidimensional analysis. These processes are interrelated, interactive and iterative and can be implemented with one tool. A businessperson should not have to switch between tools for different types of analyses, such as the “what” analysis (query and reporting) and the “why” analysis (online analytical processing).

Don’ts

  • Don’t assume there is a silver bullet. If you have acquired many tools, it doesn’t mean you will find the ultimate solution. More tools create greater complexity, increased interoperability issues and higher administration involvement. I have a theory that I call “Onion Theory”: The more layers an onion has, the more you are going to cry.
  • Don’t start with every possible dimension in search of satisfying every conceivable multidimensional query. Keep in mind that the more dimensions you have, the bigger the database, the more granular the facts, and the longer it will take to run reports and queries. An expert juggler can keep only a certain number of balls in the air – beyond that number, the juggler may have a nervous breakdown!
  • Don’t store every possible computation and ratio (fact) just because you can.

Knowledge workers and business analysts who execute simple queries are like farmers; they harvest their crops on a regular basis. In order to get better performance, they prepare the tables before they want to run the simple queries to satisfy these routines.
Knowledge workers and business analysts executing complex queries are like gold miners; they dig many mines before they strike gold. They need a powerful platform to let them look for their data and manipulate it.

It is crucial that all users have a very positive experience with BI applications. Successful organizations juggle multiple balls. They must:

  • Conduct fundamental research and be innovative to avoid being devoured by new, nimble organizations,
  • Bring products to market "just in time,"
  • Continually improve quality and customer value,
  • Create and develop new markets, and
  • Manage and nurture human capital.

All this must be done while simultaneously increasing shareholder value. All of this can be possible when users employ BI tools in order to receive the right information at the right time at the right cost.
 

This is the fourth in a series of articles by Shaku Atre. Click on the titles to read the other recent articles: "Who in the World Uses Only Words and Numbers in Reports?"; "Who in the World Wants to Stay Locked Up?"; "Who in the World Doesn't Want to Reach for the Clouds?"; "Who in the World Wants More Data?"; "Who in the World Wouldn’t Want a Collaborative BI Architecture?"; and "Who in the World Needs a Data Warehouse?"; "Who in the World Needs a Hard Drive?"; and "Who in the World Wants to Just Be Structured?"

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