New business intelligence application to-do items: Sharp design, 'fun'

Eye-catching designs, gamification and other new techniques are being tapped to make business intelligence applications more enticing to end users.

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LAS VEGAS -- Usefulness is still the key consideration in designing business intelligence applications, and that isn't likely to change. But to help draw in business users and keep them engaged, some leading-edge organizations are mixing BI functionality with a sense of fun through the use of snazzier visual designs and interactive elements, such as gamification techniques and collaboration and sharing features.

The focus on making applications more appealing to end users is being driven primarily by the growing use of business intelligence (BI) dashboards, self-service tools and mobile BI apps, according to speakers and other attendees at this week's TDWI BI Executive Summit. They said that as those technologies broaden BI usage to wider groups of workers, it's important to provide hooks for more casual users as part of the business intelligence application development process.

I tell my people all the time, 'This is just not fun. I wouldn't come here if I was a user.'

Jessica Thorud,
director of enterprise travel data warehouse and BI solutions, Sabre Holdings Corp.

"I tell my people all the time, 'This is just not fun. I wouldn't come here if I was a user,' " said Jessica Thorud, director of enterprise travel data warehouse and BI solutions at Sabre Holdings Corp. in Southlake, Texas. That's a big issue for the reservation systems operator, she added, because many of its BI applications were built for external users who likely aren't BI and analytics experts -- workers in travel agencies and corporate travel departments, for example.

Sabre has a usability team that sets standards on color schemes and other aspects of application design throughout the company, but Thorud said her group decided about 18 months ago that it needed to hire someone with higher-level design skills to spruce up the BI user interfaces. "We really had to step back and take a look at how we could make it easy to use the applications," she said.

For example, an application that lets travel agents track security alerts when booking overseas trips and identifies travelers who might be affected by terrorism incidents, natural disasters and other disruptions opens with a map-based interface providing a color-coded view of potential hot spots around the world. Thorud said she now wants to redesign some existing applications to add more graphics and other visual elements.

Gaming the BI process

In addition, the Sabre BI team is starting to think about possible uses for gamification, which enables users to earn points toward prizes or other forms of recognition by completing specified tasks in applications. A corporate-travel BI application released last year includes a small step in that direction: a tool that lets travel managers do benchmarking to compare the use of online booking systems in their companies with usage levels in other organizations. "There's an aspect of trying to get it so you rank high," Thorud said.

In a presentation at the summit, Barbara Wixom, an associate professor of IT at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce in Charlottesville, cited the example of apparel designer and retailer Guess Inc. Wixom said the company hired a graphic designer to help build an iPad-based dashboard application for corporate executives, merchandise managers and store managers. The dashboard, called GMobile, includes movie-still-like images of Guess-wearing models as a design element, plus other visuals such as photos of current products and store layouts.

Wixom listed "fun" as a third BI design factor to keep in mind for driving increased adoption, along with the staples of usefulness and ease of use. That's especially the case for organizations that are trying to make BI more pervasive, both internally and among customers or business partners, she said. "The more voluntary BI and analytics use is, the more effective you need to be at engaging users."

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To help encourage sales workers to familiarize themselves with new mobile BI tools, the BI team at Novation LLC adopted a gamification strategy, setting up a treasure hunt of sorts based on printouts of quick response codes posted around the company's headquarters in Irving, Texas. Hari Subramanian, director of mobile analytics information and data services at the health care supplies purchasing services provider, said the workers could scan the barcodes with their smartphones to get questions drawn from the BI training program. Answering the questions correctly earned them points toward an iPad and other prizes.

The BI team is also looking to elevate its design game, Subramanian said. It already follows basic principles of good design, he said. For example, mobile BI application developers put key information in the top-left corner of screens and use a color wheel to help ensure colors mesh well together. But Subramanian is seeking management approval to bring in a user-experience designer on a temporary basis to provide a more graphical eye.

New thinking on business intelligence application design

The talk of adding visual pizzazz and an element of fun to business intelligence applications was food for thought for some attendees. "I had never thought of it from that perspective before," said Tony Binford, an IT manager at the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System in Columbus. "But it's something I'm going to take away from this and look at how to do that. There's a new age of BI for the iPad generation, I guess."

Of course, making the BI process more engaging -- and entertaining -- for business users won't earn you many accolades unless the applications are also effective.

The top BI development priority, as ever, is building systems that accurately provide insight into business operations, corporate performance and market trends. "I'm sure in the hard hearts of corporate America, fun is a little bit further down the list," said David Stodder, an analyst at The Data Warehousing Institute in Renton, Wash. TDWI, a research, training and publishing outfit, organized the summit and a companion educational conference.

Stodder added, though, that the need to do more to entice users is a good point to factor into BI design plans. He said he has seen examples of applications -- particularly ones designed for iPads -- "where it doesn't look like BI at all, but it is behind the scenes."

And fun can be a relative term, according to Wixom. For some users, collaborative features, such as the ability to share customized data views with other workers, might be enough to qualify. "Fun," she said, "doesn't necessarily have to mean giving out candy or something like that."

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