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Growing use of mobile BI apps sparks need to downsize designs

Mobile business intelligence adds new challenges for BI teams, especially in designing apps. Don't overdo it on data, say BI managers and analysts.

With more organizations opening up their systems to mobile devices, often brought into the workplace by corporate executives and other business users, keeping business intelligence applications on the desktop is no longer practical for many BI managers. Deployments of mobile BI apps are still relatively limited, but that's expected to change -- quickly.

Boris Evelson, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said in a December 2012 blog post that mobile BI adoption has lagged behind the implementation of other enterprise mobile applications. But 24% of 634 BI professionals in North America and Europe surveyed by Forrester in the fourth quarter of 2012 said their organizations were using mobile BI tools or had pilot programs in place; another 37% said they planned to follow suit within the next 12 months. Evelson wrote in his post that he expects supporting mobile BI capabilities to "eventually become the norm" for companies.

On-the-go access to BI data can boost the productivity of users such as execs, sales reps, factory-floor supervisors, and delivery and field service workers. But designing, deploying and managing mobile business intelligence apps adds new challenges for BI teams, most notably in the design phase, according to consultants and IT managers with mobile BI experience. They offered the following tips on how to successfully navigate the process.

Design for the screen. The main consideration in designing mobile BI apps is the limited screen size available on smartphones and tablet computers. "It's smaller than a 21-inch monitor, so you have to figure out what you can really show in that space," said Rick Sherman, founder of consultancy Athena IT Solutions in Maynard, Mass.

Instead of trying to cram everything that's included in a PC-based BI application onto a single screen for mobile devices, Sherman recommended that application developers examine the processes business users typically run through to do BI and analytics, and then design mobile apps and BI dashboards to follow those trails. "It can be the same visual displays as desktop dashboards, but narrowing down and preselecting where users start, then setting up the workflow from one visual to another," he said.

The IT team at Illes Seasonings & Flavors, a maker of glazes, sauces, rubs and other food products in Carrollton, Texas, discovered after the fact that its first mobile BI app design was too complex for the company's sales force. The mobile software enables sales reps to do on-the-spot analysis of product and supply chain data while meeting with customers. But after starting to use the application, they asked for larger buttons and less information on the screen, said Les Howell, executive director of IT at Illes. "You can't create a screen that you design for a computer, push it out to a browser and expect a [mobile] user to navigate through that with ease," he said.

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Business users can also benefit from a familiar environment, said Darren Taylor, president of Cobalt Talon, an analytics services provider in Kansas City, Mo. that is a subsidiary of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Kansas City. Taylor, who previously worked as vice president of enterprise analytics and data management at Blue KC, oversaw the development of a mobile BI application for the medical insurer that replicated the appearance of the financial reports users were accustomed to seeing, down to using the same fonts and headings. "It's not cutting-edge, but what it did was allow people to recognize the financial statement," he said. "It still looked like what they've been getting for the past 20 years."

Don't try to enforce uniformity. Customizing dashboards for different groups of users based on their roles is a good idea in general for BI designers, according to Sherman. And it's particularly important on mobile BI projects, he said -- again, because of the screen-size limitations. Tailoring dashboard designs to user roles is another step that helps designers maximize their use of screen real estate, Sherman said.

Evelson concurred. "Mobile analytics for salespeople, executives and operations team members walking down the aisles of the factory floor or shops to do an inventory analysis will be completely different," he said. Evelson added that different use cases for mobile BI need to be clearly defined up front, particularly since they might not fit neatly into a single application architecture. For example, users working offline would find a browser-based mobile BI application useless if they couldn't connect to a Wi-Fi network. In such cases, the application needs to include a local cache, he said.

Be Agile on development. Mobile users can be a demanding audience. If they aren't satisfied with the design of a mobile application, using Agile development processes that call for frequent updates and modifications enables a BI team to quickly fine-tune the app, said William McKnight, president of McKnight Consulting Group in Plano, Texas. "Your users are going to be even more opinionated than what you're used to," he warned, adding that showing them new designs "early and often" can help avoid unpleasant surprises.

Give your apps a push. McKnight also thinks BI managers should adopt the app store concept by automatically pushing updates of mobile BI apps to user devices. Automatic updates are "a plus for mobile deployment," he said. "You can roll out frequently and expect your rollouts to be installed frequently." That approach is particularly useful, he said, when developing applications in an iterative fashion through an Agile methodology.

Christine Parizo is a freelance writer who specializes in covering business and technology issues.

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