Business Objects Labs

I recently read a press release from Business Objects that presents the company’s ongoing mission in a way that I find discouraging, although typical of BI software vendors. The article, entitled “Business Objects Designs the Future of Business Intelligence with Business Objects Labs” (November 7, 2006) announced a new research team that will provide “early access to next-generation Business Objects innovations.” This seems useful on the surface, but the focus of this research and what it says about Business Objects’ perceived mission concerns me.

According to the press release, this new team consists entirely of engineers. I have great respect for the work of good software engineers, but I have little confidence in software that is the product of an engineering effort alone. What appears to be lacking is the participation of designers. Software companies that are run by engineers tend to produce software that is technically impressive and jam-packed with features, but poorly designed and barely usable.
It is the job of good engineers to make software do what the design specification says it should do, in the way the specification says it should do it. It is the job of good designers to precede the work of engineers, determining what the software should do, based on what’s actually needed, and how it should do it, based on what actually works.

Customers should express to software vendors what they need to accomplish, but should not dictate precisely how the software should be designed to accomplish their objectives. People who use software to do something are rarely experts in interface design, usability, human cognition, and other areas of knowledge that must guide software design, any more than they are experts in the programming techniques that are used by engineers to develop the software. Software vendors should take as much responsibility for good design as they do for good engineering. Should, but this is rare.

Design makes the difference between the elegance and simplicity of an iPod and the clumsiness and incomprehensibility of most television remote controls. Based on the pure joy of a technical challenge, engineers will work around the clock for weeks to develop the means to render pie chart three dimensionally with photo-realistic reflections of light and shadow. Designers, however, will prevent this waste of time knowing that a third dimension of depth in a pie chart is meaningless and reflections of light, which we would find annoying in the real world, are distracting and can undermine our perception of the data.

This new team at Business Objects is “focused on leveraging emerging technologies to deliver innovations that continue to simplify and extend the value of BI to more people.” Once again, on the surface this sounds great, but existing BI software already exhibits excessive interest in cramming in more and more features and chasing new ideas without taking the time figure out what really matters and to then develop software that really works. I’m concerned that what Business Objects and other major BI vendors refer to as BI 2.0 is just the latest marketing hype for more of the same. The people who rely on business intelligence software would benefit much more if vendors placed less emphasis on breadth of functionality and more on depth of effectiveness.

Take care,

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4 Comments on “Business Objects Labs”


By Robin. December 11th, 2006 at 1:38 pm

Stumbled across the Data Visualization portal on DM Review, with a link to one of your articles (Uses and Misuses of color). Irony: The portal is sponsored by Business Objects. It even has a large banner advertisement from Business Objects to promote their Crystal Xcelsius product. The banner shows a gauge (!) and states: “Transform complex data into intuitive, visual dashboards” Obviously the folks at BO do not read your articles :-)
Link: http://www.dmreview.com/portals/portal.cfm?topicId=230006

Kind regards,

By Stephen Few. December 12th, 2006 at 9:54 am

Robin,

Inappropriate ties between poor products or practices and my articles through ad placement are an unfortunate downside of publishing my work in BI periodicals. This is one of the reasons that I stopped writing regular articles for the Business Intelligence Network. As much as I hate seeing an advertisement that features what I preach against associated with one of my articles, I suspect that this is even more painful for the advertiser.

Regarding Business Objects in particular, I know for a fact that some of the folks there read my articles, because they once complained to my publisher at the Business Intelligence Network about my criticism of their products and asked him to rein me in. My response to the publisher was that it was my job to critique the data visualization features of BI products and that I had nothing personal against Business Objects. I also asked him at the time to encourage the folks at Business Objects who contacted him to contact me directly to begin a dialogue. I’ve made several such attempts to connect with folks at Business Objects, so far to no avail. To date, I’ve had no means to get their attention other than through articles and blog entries and by encouraging clients that use Business Objects products to express their unhappiness with the current problems in the products.

For the sake of the many companies that use Business Objects’ products, I would love to see them learn a thing or two about data visualization and improve their products accordingly. In the meantime, I’ll keep critiquing their work in an effort to encourage a constructive response.

Steve

By Robin. December 13th, 2006 at 2:30 pm

Well, Cognos uses your articles to educate their customers:
http://www.cognos.com/newsletter/it/st_061129_01.html

I have never seen their product, so i do not know how Cognos competes with BO on visualization.

Kind regards,

Robin

By Stephen Few. December 20th, 2006 at 1:50 pm

I have never fully reviewed the data visualization capabilities of either Cognos or Business Objects, so my knowledge is limited to what these vendors expose on their Web sites and through advertising, plus some firsthand exposure when working with clients who use these products. It is my impression that the data visualization capabilities of Cognos and Business Objects are on par with one another and that neither vendor currently has much to show that is useful in this area. Cognos does seem to have an emerging interest in data visualization, however, which they have demonstrated by asking me to write a series of white papers on the subject for them.