I discovered today, thanks to the blogger at Serious about Consulting, that Business Objects is working on a new product called BI Desktop. In a recent conversation with the folks at Business Objects Labs, I was encouraged when they said that they are taking data visualization seriously and are working on some new products that are bound to please. The blogger said that, although he suspected that I would be unimpressed with the desktop widgets that make up BI Desktop, he liked them. He referred to them as “neat stuff to play with.” He was right—I don’t like them, although I would agree that if you want to play, they might keep you entertained for a few minutes. I would love to see a well designed data visualization product from Business Objects, but in its current form, BI Desktop won’t be the one.
I don’t have anything against the concept of simple display widgets that remain on your screen to keep you informed about some important performance measure. I do object, however, to any form of display that doesn’t communicate effectively and doesn’t fit an actual business need.
What kind of business intelligence information deserves to sit on your desktop at all times in the form of an individual display widget? The only kind that qualifies displays a measure that meets the following criteria:
- The information changes frequently throughout the day.
- You must monitor it throughout the day.
- It is displayed in a manner that enables you to assess performance.
- It tells you enough about what’s going on to know if you must take action.
Let’s take a look at the sample widgets that Business Objects Labs have put on display:
Now let’s evaluate each of the three widgets, based on the criteria above.
Total Inventory Cost
This widget is a typical gauge, such as those provided in many dashboard products. It suffers from all of the problems that are typical of these gauges: it takes up far more space than necessary to say far too little. It informs us of two facts: the cost of total inventory is $1,410,049 and this is satisfactory (based on the fact that the needle is pointing to the yellow range). Here are a few things that it doesn’t tell us, however:
- What dollar amount of inventory would be considered good or bad? Because the gauge provides no quantitative scale, we simply can’t tell.
- What is the cost of total inventory being compared to as a measure of performance? Is there a target? If so, what is it?
- If you happen to be color blind, which 10% of males and 1% of females are, you probably can’t tell whether it is to the left or right that you ideally want the needle to point.
One of the biggest problems with this example, however, is that total inventory cost is not something that changes so rapidly that you need a widget to keep track of it by constantly sitting on your screen. This is a measure that you might look at once a day at most.
Pie charts don’t communicate a breakdown of inventory into its parts nearly as effectively as bar charts. It is much harder to compare the sizes of pie slices than the lengths or heights of bars. You might object to this statement, however, by pointing out that the percentage of each slice is revealed as text, to which I would respond, “If you need the numbers to be printed on the slices to understand the chart, what good is the image?”—a table of numbers would work better. Despite the generic problems that pie charts suffer, this pie chart in particular is absurd. What’s missing from the picture? The labels that are needed to tell us what is being measured, what each slice represents. Also, this pie chart fails to display performance information. Assuming that the sizes of the slices are changing throughout the day and that we actually know what they represent, how would we ever know if we should take action? Nothing tells us when particular conditions are good or bad, such as what the targets are for the various measures.
Revenues by Quarter
Once again, here’s a widget that would sit on our screen taking up space all day long to tell us something that we would likely only need to see once in the day. Of the five quarters, only the current quarter could possibly change during the day. The little bit that it might change in a day, however, isn’t worth monitoring. And where is the target or some other point of comparison that gives us some clue as to how revenues are performing. At least with this particular widget, we can compare the current quarter to past quarters, which is useful, but not enough. Unless we’re near the end of the quarter, comparing the current quarter’s revenues to prior quarters doesn’t really tell us how well we’re doing.
The criticism that I’ve aimed at Business Objects in the past, remains valid for this future product as well. They are either developing or purchasing visualization products (for example, Crystal Xcelsius, which was developed by Infommersion) that are poorly designed. These problems in design would never occur if they stepped back from what they’re doing and asked the questions “What do our customers really need?” and “What functionality and design would effectively address this need?” When a data visualization product is needed, it cannot be developed without a firm understanding of visualization: what works, what doesn’t, and why. To date, Business Objects, much like most other BI vendors, has not demonstrated even a fundamental understanding of data visualization.