• July 10, 2008
  • By Mike Psenka, founder, president, CEO, eThority

4 Simple Tips for Business Intelligence

Most enterprise-level business intelligence (BI) platforms are too complicated for the average user to employ effectively. As a result, these tools are often exclusively used by small groups of trained technology specialists -- despite the fact that individuals at all levels of the enterprise make more-efficient, informed decisions if they have direct access to data mining, reporting, and analysis capabilities. The limited accessibility of these offerings prevents organizations from fully leveraging their BI investments.

To empower a larger pool of decision-makers, BI platforms must possess a self-evident, customizable user interface (UI). In fact, they must become more user-obvious -- and there are four design considerations that are paramount in achieving user-obvious status. Incorporating these elements as tenets of BI architecture may start to debunk the widely held industry belief that BI capabilities can only reside with a privileged few.

1) Organization of Functionality and Data
A clean, organized UI is inviting. With less distraction, the user can better identify the various features that the UI offers and feel more confident about tackling the data. Information initially may be hidden, to maintain a clean aesthetic, but it's easy to retrieve that information once the user grows more confident. This drill-down capability means that aspects of the data will not reside on the main screen unless they are relevant to the user. Similarly, different UI screens can provide several obvious functionality options for users. The various onscreen elements are only presented to users when they are necessary to complete tasks. Essentially, information as well as functionality should be progressively disclosed. Most BI offerings present all features and functions up front, making it confusing and daunting to the average user.

2) Visually Compelling Features—"Stay and Play"
Visually compelling features, such as animation, engage users and stimulate their interest. They are essential to a user-obvious BI solution. Captivated users are more likely to stay and play, teaching themselves the software without realizing it. Once users begin to see tangible results, their interest is reinforced, and they are motivated to play again. The more times users interact with the software, the more their skill level improves and the more likely they are to continue using it. This is not to say that the software is not complex or robust, only that the user interface serves as a buffer to this complexity, making it easier to learn. A look at several prominent BI desktop tools will show you boring spreadsheet-like interfaces that do not compel users to explore.

3) Adaptable Settings
No one wants to read a bulky manual or take a training course. Interactive help tools act as important guides throughout the learning process. Tutorials and other aid components are sensitive to the context in which they're used. When users first log into the software, these tools should immediately appear, displaying information relevant only to the functionality on the main screen. Users should then be able to customize and save the settings to best suit their individual needs. The sensitivity and flexibility of these tools should enable organizations to adopt new software with little formal training.

Content layout, or the arrangement of information and functionality on the screen, is another important adaptable setting. It should be based on the skills and role of each user and be programmable at the system-administrator level. This approach ensures that organizations can safely regulate who is manipulating data libraries -- and, again, is another step toward making the software more accessible.

4) Visual, Auditory, and Written Cues
Visual, auditory, and written cues work together to confirm and promote user actions. Inclusion of various cues will guide users to the next step, alert them of errors, and redirect incorrect courses of action. These cues also save users the trouble of locating appropriate instructions within the help system, and offer aid without patronizing or distracting users. The cues can serve as the perfect complement to visually engaging features and adaptable settings. They should explain why certain elements appear on the screen -- and how to adjust these elements.

To be widely and quickly adopted at all levels of the organization, BI platforms must include a UI that isn’t just obvious -- it must be ridiculously obvious. The functionality and organization of information helps users identify the purpose of the software. Visually compelling features dictate whether users are engaged, and directly influence adoption rates and return on investment. The amount of training required for implementation of new software is greatly reduced if user settings are adaptable and help tools are readily available. And the combined power of visual, written, and auditory cues reduces error rates and improves the learning curve of new and longtime users.

By incorporating these four design elements as core tenets of BI architecture, enterprises can begin erasing the myth that business intelligence cannot be accessible to everyone within an organization. BI can and should be leveraged at all levels of an organization; we just need to make it more obvious.

About the author
Mike Psenka is founder, president, and CEO of eThority, a company with a 16-year history in business intelligence and data reporting.

Please note that the Viewpoints listed in CRM magazine and appearing on destinationCRM.com represent the perspective of the authors, and not necessarily those of the magazine or its editors. If you would like to submit a Viewpoint for consideration, please email viewpoints@destinationCRM.com.

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