Business Objects’ data visualization strategy

Recently, my friend Ron Powell, Editorial Director of the Business Intelligence Network, pointed out that I seemed to be giving a great deal of critical attention to Business Objects in this blog. As the person ultimately responsible for the Business Intelligence Network’s content, he was probing for the cause of this attention, wondering if I had a personal bias against Business Objects. Journalistic integrity is critical to our work, so I appreciate his concern. After we spoke, I looked back over my blog entries and found that to date I have spoken critically of vendors or publications in 50% of my entries and 33% of these critical entries were aimed at Business Objects (three in total). Although these statistics aren’t evidence of a crusade, I can understand why personal bias seemed like a possibility. Let me explain how I decide what to write about and why Business Objects has been featured so often.

First of all, I don’t believe Business Objects does data visualization worse than other mainstream business intelligence vendors. Most large business intelligence vendors don’t understand data visualization. They focus primarily on useless and distracting visual fluff rather than meaningful substance. Their understanding of data visualization is superficial, with shallow roots the reach down into the rocky soil of misguided customer demand (which they themselves have helped to create), rather than the rich soil of empirical research into what really works. This is currently true of the largest BI-specific vendors–Business Objects, Cognos, and Hyperion–and is also true of Microsoft, the maker of Excel, the tool used for business intelligence more than any other.

I use this blog to discuss what’s on my mind regarding data visualization as it applies to business intelligence. What’s on my mind can be triggered by many things, but it is usually prompted by something I’ve read. Consequently, vendors that issue frequent press releases or frequently distribute marketing materials get my attention more often than others. It is my experience that no large business intelligence vendor issues press releases and distributes marketing literature on the topic of data visualization more frequently than Business Objects. As an analyst and journalist who specializes in data visualization, I listen when vendors speak about it or make claims about what they bring to it. When I feel strongly about these statements, either positively or negatively, I respond. My responses are especially impassioned when vendors make statements or claims that I believe are either misleading (including outright false) or espouse a position that undermines the effectiveness of business intelligence as an industry, data visualization as a discipline, or the customers we are supposed to serve.

I recently began to use this blog to show examples of poorly designed graphs. I inaugurated this “Graph Hall of Shame” with an example taken from Business Objects’ user documentation. Why? Because of all the examples in my private collection of bad graphs from BI vendors, I felt that this one was especially bad in ways that I could easily explain, which made it a good place to begin. To be fair to Business Objects, however, you should know that I only possess copies of user documentation from two large business intelligence vendors: The only other user documentation at my disposal is Brio’s from before the time Brio was acquired by Hyperion. In other words, I have a larger collection of Business Objects examples to choose from than any other vendor, which is part of the reason why these examples show up in my work more often than others. This isn’t fair, so I’ll make an effort to keep this abundance of Business Objects examples from resulting in an undeserved frequency of nomination to the Graph Hall of Shame.

Something has come to my attention recently regarding Business Objects, however, that requires a response.A few days ago, an article by Stephen Swoyer appeared in Enterprise Strategiesk, which reported fresh claims by Business Objects about its data visualization strategy. Swoyer states: “Late last year, Business Objects SA got itself a data visualization strategy, courtesy of the former Infommersion…Xcelsius [Infommersion’s product] brought a candy-apple sheen to Business Objects’ analytic brawn.” What is Business Objects now planning to add to this data visualization strategy?

Over time, says BO director of marketing James Thomas, Business Objects hopes to do for Xcelsius what the former Crystal Decisions Inc. did for Crystal: bundle it with third-party applications and IDEs, open it up to developers, ISVs, and OEMs, and facilitate invocation of Xcelsius’ data visualization capabilities from custom-built or third-party applications.

This is not a data visualization strategy; this is a sales strategy. A data visualization strategy focuses on improving the usefulness and effectiveness of data visualization and applying it in new ways to address real problems. Plans to bundle Xcelsius with third-party applications, etc., is part of a sales strategy. Unless Xcelsius is much different from what Business Objects features on its Web site and other marketing venues, it does not represent the direction that data visualization ought to be going. Embedding Xcelsius in every nook and cranny will do more harm than good. Remaining neutral, Swoyer diplomatically raises an important question about Xcelsius: “Candy Apple Sheen or Candy Apple Substance?” I find it difficult to see past the blinding candy apple sheen. Here’s a typical example.

Bad BO Dashboard Charts.jpg

We find it annoying in the physical world when glaring light reflects off the surface of an object, making it difficult to see, so why would we want to reproduce this effect in a display of business information? There is probably some useful functionality hiding beneath Xcelsius’ video game look and feel, but the dominance of distracting visual fluff and game-like sound effects severely undermines its integrity and proclaims that Business Objects doesn’t understand or seriously care about data visualization. Business Objects does care about sales, however, and knows that many people find the video game qualities of Xcelsius entertaining. Few of our customers are experts in data visualization. They haven’t done empirical research to determine what works and what doesn’t, nor have they read the research findings of others. Vendors selling data visualization software are supposed to be the experts, working to give people what they need . It pains me to see the potential of data visualization reduced to this level. Business Objects is certainly not alone in this; just louder than most vendors in marketing this snake oil.

I express strong opinions in this blog, sometimes in provocative ways, but I base them on evidence and reason. This is my job. I welcome discussion about these opinions with business intelligence vendors, espeically if they find fault with my evidence or reasoning. Respond to this blog or contact me directly. Show me that you care. If you wish to give the world useful tools, let’s work together to make them as good as possible. I would much rather write about the good work of business intelligence vendors and use this blog to put people in touch with tools that can improve their lives.

Take care,


Comments are closed.