Business Objects Insight – A mind grind and waste of time

You’ve got to hand it to the marketing folks at Business Objects: they’ve got balls. They don’t hesitate to make claims that are backed up by nothing but illusion. With the introduction of their new website called Business Objects Insight, however, they’ve taken marketing chutzpah to a whole new level. Want to solve the world’s great problems? Welcome to Business Objects Insight, the “world’s first mind grid,” the only site that provides “tools for data visualization, data collaboration, and a platform to publish challenges to the online community.” The challenges take on great problems of the modern world, such as global warming. Ignoring the fact that they are not the only site that does this (I’ll tell you about Many Eye’s in a moment), let’s look at what they’re actually providing.

Data visualization: What they call data visualization is really just Crystal Xcelsius, their product that makes the analysis and presentation of data look like a video game and work about as effectively as a eunuch in heat.

Data collaboration: I can’t tell that any collaborative functionality has been built into the site, other than a blog and the fact that people can display their Xcelsius applications there and others can look at and use them. As far as data collaboration goes, this is rather anemic.

Platform for challenges: This isn’t really a feature; it’s the declared purpose of the site. Participants are being challenged to develop data visualization’s using Xcelsius that are designed to solve major world problems. And why should people make the effort to save the world and why should they channel their world-saving talent into learning and using Xcelsius to do so? Because Business Objects is going to pay a heart-stopping million dollars to the creators of the best world-saving applications (or actually “up to a million dollars”, which, if you think about it could actually mean nothing at all).

This strikes me as a thinly-veiled marketing scheme to sell more copies of Xcelsius under the guise of solving world problems. Business Objects’ founder and Chairman Bernard Liautard declares:

Today the world becomes more intelligent. While there are a number of sites dedicated to aggregating and analyzing data, Insight is unique in providing members with tools for data visualization, data collaboration, and a platform to publish challenges to the online community. Our goal is to change the way problems get solved, to work on issues that have a global impact, and to challenge the conventions and paradigms of online communities.

Wow, this is quite a claim. If only Business Objects had the know-how and technology to do it. Until they actually develop or hire some expertise in the field of data visualization, they should stop claiming that they are using visualization methods to tackle even the simplest problems, let alone the great problems that plague our world. And until they have tools that provide effective visualization functionality, rather than the child’s toy of a product called Xcelsius, they should stick to selling data reporting tools that depend on the conventional paradigm of purely text-based displays.

If you’re interested in seeing a site that effectively uses data visualization as a means for people to exchange information and insights related to world problems, and does so in a way that supports true collaboration, take a look at Many Eyes, which was developed by IBM Research. The reason this site succeeds where Business Objects Insight does not is because it was designed by people who are experts in data visualization and data collaboration. Although the folks at Many Eyes are not making any grand claims about saving the world, they are providing a platform that could actually be used to support this effort.

What’s so sad about this is that there are real problems in the world that need solving, but Business Objects Insight, with its dysfunctional tools, will only waste people’s time, frittering away well-intentioned efforts and potentially good ideas that could be better applied elsewhere. If Business Objects really wants to help solve the problems of the world, why not throw their weight behind a data visualization and collaboration site that really works? Perhaps they have an ulterior goal.

Take care,

Signature

Business Object's Insight Screenshot

19 Comments on “Business Objects Insight – A mind grind and waste of time”


By David Harper. May 24th, 2007 at 2:03 pm

Hi Steven,

Okay I get that you don’t appreciate BOBJ’s want to market products for sale to customers (as if all marketing weren’t some form of chutzpah)…and of course the site is new, so some of those points are aspirational…I bought your excellent book on dashboards and have occasionally developed xcelsius dashboards. What’s wrong with Xcelisus, isn’t it capable of generating bad designs or good designs. It renders data interactively, like excel charts with some extras: an excel chart can be good or bad. It’s not super-advanced but that’s better for lots of users….

By Stephen Few. May 24th, 2007 at 2:43 pm

Hi David,

Unlike Excel and most other products that can be used to create graphical data displays, both good and bad, with Xcelsius you cannot choose to ignore the silly visual effects that undermine effectiveness. I have worked with several clients who use Xcelsius, including software vendors who resell the product, who have pointed out to me that the distracting effects (lighting, shadoes, reflections, decoration, color gradients, photo-realistic rendering of real-world objects such as knobs and gauges) cannot be turned off. It is one thing to give in to uninformed customer demands for functionality that doesn’t work, but quite another to only provide poorly designed display media with no means to eliminate the chartjunk.

Steve

By David Harper. May 24th, 2007 at 3:38 pm

Steve,

These observations may not refer to the current version (4.5), which is highly style-able include component-specific skins. For any component, you can style anywhere from minimalist to over-done. Few of those you mention are even defaults and all can be disabled. In my opinion, what happens is users go crazy, because they can, without understanding principles in your book. I myself the first thing i do is start styling, you know, just because i can. Don’t get me wrong, i am not in love with Xcelsius. It’s no matlab for tricking out and it’s a little slow to develop in, but it does allow a novice to create interactive charts out of the box.

By Stephen Few. May 24th, 2007 at 4:22 pm

David,

I would be encouraged to find that some of the nonsense in earlier versions of Xcelsius can now be avoided. Every example that I’ve seen of the product’s display media is “tricked out.” Perhaps you can post examples on my discussion forum of a simple line graph, simple bar graph, simple pie chart (despite the fact that I don’t recommend their use), and the version of a gauge that comes closest to a bullet graph. If these basic dashboard display media can be rendered simply, without distraction, I will rejoice.

Thanks,

Steve

By David Harper. May 26th, 2007 at 9:51 am

Steve,

I don’t know if i have such examples.

I helped on a team, to produce these.
…but I helped more on the functional specs not the appearance. I don’t assume these would meet your criteria.

You know how it is, there are lots of constituents to a final beta/prototype. And, it seems to be true, that a little graphical pizzazz sometimes “sells” the information. These samples, that i linked, I know for a fact have been enthusiastically received by audiences that matter. So, you know, that’s my criteria: does it get the job done for the client, the job that the client wants done. “every product has a job.” And i absolutely do think that if a client wants snazzy graphics, then it is not for me to decide the bells and whistles are too much.A Tufte-ish chart may be better logically, but if a ringing-clanging-garish dashboard gets people otherwise interested in a boring domain, maybe it does a better job?

If you are interested, I work with, in my humble opinion, among the best dashboard producers anywhere, http://www.analysisfactory.com. Cliff and his team consistently produce client-inspiring dashboards.

By Anonymous. May 28th, 2007 at 12:16 am

You are brutal Stephen… I like it.

By Stephen Few. May 29th, 2007 at 11:18 am

David,

Unfortunately, none of the examples that you provided illustrate the ability to turn off the distracting visual effects in Xcelsius. Until I see examples of visual displays that are effectively designed for clear, accurate, meaningful, and efficient communication, I cannot upgrade my opinion of Xcelsius.

I would like to suggest that your criterion for judging the effectiveness of a data display be revised to ask “Does it get the job done for the client in the most effective manner?” The fact that a display is “enthusiastically received” does not indicate that it is effective. Many studies have demonstrated that people often prefer displays that communicate poorly. To give in to these preferences is to settle for poor software and poor performance by those who use it.

Regarding the work of the Analysis Factory, I’m sad to say that I find their dashboard designs typical and far from effective. They suffer from all of the problems that I warn against in my book Information Dashboard Design.

By Robin. May 29th, 2007 at 1:11 pm

Hi Stephen,

I realize i am off topic here, but i am very curious whether you are planning to review the new google analytics dashboard?

Kind regards,

Robin

By Stephen Few. May 29th, 2007 at 2:05 pm

Hi Robin,

If I can find the time, I do plan to comment on the effectiveness of the new Google analytics dashboard. It’s better than what they provided previously, but still falls considerably short of the mark.

Steve

By David Harper. May 30th, 2007 at 5:32 pm

Stephen,

Thanks for looking, I didn’t think you’d pull punches

Point taken, clearly we seek a “wow” factor, but that’s not the same as usability. Just like software, good looking doesn’t necessarily get the job done.

But i also think “classic” information display theory–if Tufte represents that, I have no idea–understandably does not really address interactivity. It’s possible that good paper design does not translate to the “rich media interface” with 1:1 correspondence. Paper is only static two dimensions, but rich media has more “dimensions:” interactivity (very important, changes the whole thing), animation, sound. These are all tools in the toolbox that become available. In short, classic infoViz should learn from gaming. You have a chapter Usability; usability may need redefinition in the rich media context. Just a suggestion for your sequel

By Stephen Few. May 30th, 2007 at 5:58 pm

David,

Regarding the importance of interactivity in infovis, I absolutely agree, and so do most of the leaders in the field. Tufte’s love of paper has severely limited the scope of his influence. As the resolution of computer screens has improved, the field of infovis has extended Tufte’s insights and surpassed them by focusing on interactivity and other benefits of computer-based displays, which are critical, especially for data analysis.

By Bored WithU. May 31st, 2007 at 11:23 am

I’m not convinced that the focus of your forum here necessarily applies to the website mentioned or the functionality, albeit with glare, of excelsius. The ability to perform real time what-if scenarios goes beyond your definition of a “dashboard” or “faceted analytical displays” and is critical to visualize how a problem could be solved - see co2 footprint samples. Just because a software program won’t produce bullet graphs, does not make it a “unuch in heat”. I don’t have a degree in psychology, but I know Transference when I see it.

By Stephen Few. May 31st, 2007 at 11:55 am

Dear Mr. Bored,

My definitions of the terms “dashboard” and “faceted analytical display” are not meant to cover everything that one might need to do when displaying or analyzing data. My critique of Xcelsius and the Business Objects Insight website has nothing to do with their attempts to support what-if analysis or real-time data, which are two areas of functionality that I fully embrace. Nor do I care whether or not Xcelsius provides a bullet graph among its library of display widgets. My criticism targets the poor design of Xcelsius, which severely limits its ability to present and analyze information effectively.

As for the meaning of “transference” and the spelling of “eunuch”, you might find a dictionary helpful.

I am intentionally provocative in this blog, because being so gets people’s attention. What I say, however, is always full of substance and serves to inform. You are welcome to challenge anything that I say, and do so provocatively, but be sure to include some substance in what you say that addresses the points that I’ve made.

By Bored WithU. May 31st, 2007 at 1:42 pm

Through my comments, I intended to challenge your “points”, if you can call them that (full of substance and informative?), that Excelsius:

“works as effectively as a eunuch in Heat” - as I stated above, it’s interactive functionality goes beyond tired remedial data analysis and likely goes beyond the scope of your work and your blog.

“child’s toy of a product” although this is highly informative and full of substance, sarcasm intended, it undermines the efforts of real, hard-working people, none of whom I know personally, and fails again to represent the impressive interactive functionality of the product.

I, and I assume others, fail to reap any benefit from your immature criticisms of Excelsius. We all know they make lots of money selling a product that has lighting effects. Get over it! Your own readers point out again and again that you have to combine both substance and “color” to engage and inform your audience. While software that enables both may warrant name calling and envy from you, it simply poses minor challenges for the rest of us.

If you expect comments to your blog to have substance, please make sure your blog follows the same rules.

Oh, and thanks for the correct spelling of eunuch, although I assume your website is the only place it will ever be used.

By Stephen Few. May 31st, 2007 at 3:13 pm

You are welcome to use Xcelsius to your heart’s delight. If you do, however, your work will suffer and your employer will only get a fraction of what you could contribute with a better tool. I share your frustration with “tired and remedial data analysis”, which is far too common in businesses today, but I do not share your opinion that Xcelsius goes beyond this. Like many products that dabble in data visualization, Xcelsius shows little interest in the type of data communication and analysis that businesses desperately need.

Regarding the maturity or substance of my comments, although provocative, my comments are factual and a direct response to false claims by Business Objects. When vendors make false claims or promote ineffective data visualization products, I challenge them. No one pays me to do this. I do it because I care about the business intelligence industry and about people whose jobs require them to communicate and make sense of data.

I have critiqued Xcelsius on several occasions, almost always in response to misleading marketing claims by the vendor. If you have followed this blog and my articles closely, rather than this one entry in particular, you know that I have provided detailed critiques of Xcelsius’ functionality in the past. In this particular entry I responded primarily to the vendor’s claims about the new site called Business Objects Insight, in which Xcelsius appears to play a central role.

The interactive functionality of Xcelsius, which you praise, includes few of the features that are required for effective visual communication and analysis, and the useful features that have been included are undermined by poor usability. Take a look at products that do a good job, such as those developed by Tableau and Spotfire, and you will easily see the difference between a product that plays at visual analysis and one that succeeds. My reference to Xcelsius as a “child’s toy of a product” reflects this lack of effective functionality, its focus on visual effects that have no place in business applications, as well as the fact that its developers, who no doubt did work tirelessly to create the product, came from the video game industry. Xcelsius demonstrates extensive expertise in video game development, but what it needed was expertise in information visualization.

(By the way, when I express my opinions, I use my own name and take responsibility for what I say. You might consider doing the same.)

Note: Those of you who are following this exchange regarding the merits of Xcelsius can find its continuation in my discussion forum.

By Tim. July 11th, 2007 at 8:06 am

Stephen:
While academically correct as you are and will ultimately NOT challenge you on your points and they are quite good, I might steal a quote from you:

“I am intentionally provocative in this blog, because being so gets people’s attention”

What I might say:
“BO is intentionally provocative in it’s Marketing, because doing so gets people’s attention”

It therefore has succeeded. What BO is doing is striking a balance between creation aesthetics and end users and it is a large and deep gap - with a technology. All the while being pushed and prodded to higher levels as the product matures and grows. By all means keep pushing.

Regards

By Stephen Few. July 11th, 2007 at 8:58 am

Tim,

I am provoking people to work smarter and more effectively. The marketing of Business Objects that I object to, if indeed intended to be provocative, encourages practices that are ineffective. To succeed in this is hardly success.

To say that I am “academically correct” implies that I am not correct where it counts — that is in the real world. This is the opposite of what is true, however. As someone who has spent his entire professional life working in the real world of business, not as an ivory tower academic, but as a practitioner, I advocate practices that work in the real world. What I don’t do is abandon what works when people, without knowing better, ask for something that does not work. This is the difference between someone who works to do what’s right and an organization that works to sell products, whether they work or not.

Would it surprise you to hear that there are several conscientious, design-oriented employees of Business Objects who are working hard to fix the problems that I’ve identified in the products? When their efforts begin to turn up in the products, I will be the first to cheer, and do so publicly.

By Tim. July 11th, 2007 at 4:51 pm

No I am not suprised to hear several conscientious people are on the task - I know them. There are several things coming down the very near pike that will move us in this direction.

I enjoy people whom are enthusiastic about their work.

By Simon. September 11th, 2007 at 3:53 pm

Bottom line - insight.businessobjects.com is just bad marketing. Content hasn’t changed in months. I’m not even sure whay they are trying to attempt - maybe they aren’t as well.