When did you last look up and notice the moon? (or “When will Business Objects raise its head and look around?”)

Last night while on my way to visit friends, I happened to look up and notice the moon. Nothing about the moon last night was particularly spectacular or eye catching; in fact, it was a little sliver of a thing, but still beautiful and awe-inspiring, as it always is. I didn’t just see it there in the sky; I actually paid attention to it for a moment and realized that I hadn’t noticed it for awhile. If I had walked up to you this morning and asked what the moon looked like last night and whether it were waxing or waning, would you have known the answer? Most days I wouldn’t have a clue, and this saddens me.

I am a busy guy, like most of us are these days, with much to distract me from noticing the state of the moon, but I like to think of myself as someone who notices what’s going on in the world around him, someone who is conscious of the context of life, someone who notices things like the moon. At times of reflection like this, I am troubled by the way I have allowed my work and the other interests that fill my time to narrow my awareness, to make me one of those myopic guys who sees only what’s in front of his face and rarely turns his head to discover what he’s missing.

This disturbs me because I am convinced that my life, my work, and my brain are at their best when my vision is most panoramic and my feet tread diverse paths. Most innovation comes from the intersection of ideas; that place where disciplines and worldviews rub up against one another. Too much immersion in a single activity, topic, or way of thinking gradually produces stagnation. We need to lift our heads and look around often to remain vital and to remember who we are, what we’re doing, what it’s all about, and why it matters.

The moon is out there and it is beautiful to behold. I am a better person and I do better work when I notice it. Businesses are smarter and give more to the world when they do this as well. It is easy to get lost when you forget to look around.

I am inclined to end this blog entry right here, happy to have blessed the world with my philosophical musings, but I’m betting that you would like me to tie this a little more firmly to data visualization, or at least to business intelligence in general. Let’s see…how can I link this to BI? Ah hah, I just thought of something I’ve been itching to say for a while now.

Three months ago Business Objects purchased a relatively small company named Infommersion, whose software features visual representations of data, especially in the form of dashboard-like displays. Prior to this purchase, the visual capabilities of Business Objects’ software were rather sad. I suspect that they heard enough complaints about this from customers that they finally decided to address the problem by acquiring software that already handled data visualization more satisfactorily. Unfortunately, Business Objects didn’t lift its head high enough to get a good look around.

Rather than walking up the hill a ways to get the lay of the land and understand the real potential of dashboards and what’s really needed to deliver that potential, they grabbed for the obvious but ultimately unsatisfying appeal of flash and dazzle. The software that they purchased, now called Crystal Xcelsius, looks great—at least superficially—but it is just a slicker version of the same misguided design that most dashboard software features. Dashboards are only as valuable as they are able to deliver—clearly, accurately, and efficiently—the important information that people must monitor to do their jobs.

Dashboard vendors should be spending their time figuring out the best ways to support this need, rooted firmly in an understanding of visual perception (how people see) and human intelligence (how people think). Instead, most of them are spending their time creating the cutest, most photo-realistic gauges, meters, and traffic lights imaginable. This considerable effort does little to improve a dashboard’s ability to communicate, and in most cases actually achieves the opposite effect. Dashboards are not video games, they are computer-based displays for vital business communication. To build products that enable the development of effective dashboards, software vendors must lift their heads above the fray of feature-function competition and look past the tempting candy (the empty calories of superficial glitz) that is dangling right there in front of their eyes. They must step back and look around long enough to remember what business intelligence is all about, and then take the time to design software that really works and really matters.

That’s enough preaching for today.


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