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Don't get taken for a ride on mobile dashboard development

Designers creating BI dashboards for mobile devices must balance the need for functionality with expectations of an optimized mobile user experience.

Although designing business intelligence dashboards to run on conventional PCs is still the primary focus for BI teams, the mobile technology tsunami is quickly making the need to support dashboards on tablet devices and smartphones a fact of life in many organizations.

And doing that isn't necessarily a slam dunk. Building mobile dashboards presents some special challenges for designers and BI managers because of issues such as the reduced screen real estate that's available on mobile devices and the proliferation of different mobile platforms.

Steven A. Lowe, founder and CEO of consultancy and custom software developer Innovator LLC in Chattanooga, Tenn., said there are two fundamental approaches to take on mobile dashboard development. Dashboards can either be built specifically to run on mobile devices, or they can be ported over from PCs, often as a "sliding window" that requires users to scroll around their screens to view the data they need.

The latter approach requires less of an investment in redesigning existing BI dashboards. But in many cases, it's inadequate, Lowe warned. Squeezing a dashboard designed for a wall monitor onto a smartphone screen often results in "an unintelligible blob of color," he said. "That's possibly interesting as abstract art, but rarely useful as a dashboard."

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Mobile dashboard design: A balancing act

Finding the proper balance between optimizing the mobile look and feel and delivering the full functionality of dashboards originally designed for PCs is another challenge, said Bill Brydges, a managing director at consulting company MorganFranklin in McLean. Va. And it's complicated by the rapid evolution of tablets and smartphones, which makes them a moving target for dashboard designers. In addition, bring-your-own-device policies typically enable corporate executives and other business workers to use a mix of mobile devices, which means dashboards must be built to run on multiple platforms with different screen sizes.

With all those factors at play, Brydges said simplicity is called for on mobile dashboard designs. "Less complicated and less involved dashboards that focus on a subset of critical data will use up less screen real estate and be more portable to mobile devices," he said.

One approach he recommends is to develop a "dashboard's dashboard" exclusively for mobile devices, using a series of pages to display data that gets pulled together onto a single screen on laptops and desktop PCs. "The concept is that you wouldn't have to build a new dashboard," Brydges said. "You could use the ‘dashboardlets' from what you built in the mobile environment to quickly consolidate information [for PC users]." That also could make it easier to keep the two dashboard environments in sync on design changes, he added.

Another consideration in planning mobile dashboard development projects is whether users of devices such as the iPad, iPhone and Android phones will expect native mobile apps or be satisfied with browser-based Web apps, said Keith Metcalfe, a vice president at WCI Consulting in Plano, Texas.

"We feel most [people] are looking for the unique dashboard app experience," he added. But even if that's the way companies go, Metcalfe said elements of full-sized dashboards can be reused in mobile apps to help ensure information consistency and reduce overall development time.

BI mobility's dashboard downsides

Having separate BI data streams for mobile devices could result in the creation of analytical information silos, cautioned David Stodder, director of BI research at The Data Warehousing Institute in Renton, Wash. Another concern about dashboard mobility that Stodder cited involves data delivery speeds: In the instant-gratification world of mobile devices, he said, users looking for access to data often want to get it in real or near real time. "The demands may not be reasonable or related to actual business need, but they will appear," Stodder said, adding that supporting such capabilities often requires additional IT infrastructure investments.

One key to-do item in designing and deploying both mobile and conventional dashboards is to encourage business users to actively engage with the data, Stodder said. He thinks a big problem with many dashboards is they don't have any real connection to the everyday decisions people make or the actions they take in the course of doing their jobs.

Dashboard designers "have to understand that just delivering data is not enough, even if it's delivered in modern, highly graphical ways," Stodder said. To get real business value from dashboards, he added, designers need to find ways to pull in end users so they don't simply ignore the data being presented to them.

Alan R. Earls is a Boston-area freelance writer focused on business and technology.

Follow on Twitter: @BizAnalytics_TT

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