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Ease of use is top priority in selecting self-service analytics tools

A lot of factors go into a choosing a strong, modern BI tool. But several users say ease of use trumped all other considerations for them in picking self-service software.

When it comes to deploying self-service analytics tools, one thing matters above nearly everything else: ease of use.

"It had to be easy," said Lige Hensley, CTO at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, discussing self-service software now in use there. "We wanted it to be so fast and so intuitive that when the users play with it they'll ask more questions."

There's certainly a lot to consider when picking a self-service tool for business intelligence and analytics. The quality of data visualizations is important, as is the ability to share and collaborate on reports. But usability for non-technical workers is paramount, said Hensley and other attendees at the Gartner Data & Analytics Summit 2017 in Grapevine, Texas.

Ivy Tech, a large community college serving the state of Indiana through more than 30 campuses, recently implemented a self-service BI and analytics tool from Pentaho. Hensley and his team use the data preparation capabilities of the software to maintain 40 curated data sets for end users across all of the college's departments, including financial aid, registration and fundraising.

Emphasis placed on ease of use

Employees in those departments can use the tool to create their own reports and share them within workgroups or with other departments. The emphasis on user-led reporting is why the IT team prioritized ease of use, Hensley said.

For Debra Taylor, an IT architecture consultant at Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., ease of use was a deciding factor when choosing a self-service analytics tool. In a presentation at the conference, Taylor wouldn't name the software Nationwide decided on, but she said her team evaluated seven different vendors, eventually selecting one for a proof-of-concept project. The tool then became the choice for a full-scale deployment in large part due to its ease of use.

"It's that human element where someone says, 'Yes, that works for me,'" she said. "That was a big requirement."

The tool is now being used by departments throughout Nationwide, including insurance, finance and operations. Prior to it bringing in the new software, business teams at the Columbus, Ohio, insurer did most of their data reporting in Excel, which can only go so far as an analytics tool, but nevertheless is considered easy to use by those familiar with it. Taylor said hitting adoption targets with the new tool and moving people away from Excel demanded that the chosen software be just as simple and usable.

Understand what end users want

Implementing easy-to-use self-service analytics tools is about more than just selecting the right software. In another presentation at the conference, Chris Jones, a Tableau solutions architect at ExxonMobil, said it's important to understand the end users when developing capabilities.

"You have to sit down with your users," he said. "Interview them. Understand what works for them and what doesn't."

Jones and his team recently implemented Tableau software in ExxonMobil's safety, security, health and environment department. He said that when rolling out Tableau, it was important to avoid simply replicating what users were already doing in Excel or other software the department may have brought in on its own. Different tools have different strengths and the point of self-service analytics tools is that they can do more than spreadsheets, Jones noted.

Still, there's a fine line between pushing more advanced functionality and giving people what they want, particularly if you're taking away something they already find useful. Jones said investing time in research upfront, understanding what users need and sitting down with a pen and paper to sketch out how dashboards should work, rather than jumping right in on the software end, can deliver effective results.

"When you go off and gather requirements like in a traditional BI model, you end up having to do this anyway, so invest in the work upfront," he said.

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