Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts about Visual Business Intelligence. This blog provides me (and others on occasion) with a venue for ideas and opinions that are either too urgent to wait for a full-blown article or too limited in length, scope, or development to require the larger venue. For a selection of articles, white papers, and books, please visit my library.

 

Be as provocative as you wish, but back your opinions with substance

March 12th, 2007

Blogs, by their very nature, tend to be provocative, especially those that are written by industry leaders (sometimes called “thought leaders”). Opinions are often expressed with passion. This is certainly true of my blog. In fact, I tend to communicate in this way in all venues (blog posts, articles, books, presentations, classes, and even conversation over lunch). This seems appropriate. It is not appropriate, however, whether or not you’re communicating provocatively, to state opinions without substance. In other words, be as passionate as you please, but say something meaningful—something you can back up with solid reason and validate with evidence. I’m committed to this form of communication. If you ever catch me expressing opinions that are not well reasoned or that lack evidence, you should challenge me. And if you disagree with something that I say, by all means take me on, but do so thoughtfully. I don’t respond to emotional attacks that lack substance. State what you object to, why you object to it, and then back it up with reason and evidence. This is the only type of discourse that will get us anywhere.

People are sometimes offended by my opinions. More often than not, the people who take offense work for a company whose products or services I have criticized, or are loyal to them for other reasons. I know that criticism of something that you care about feels like an attack and that it is our natural response to lash out emotionally. Just as I put myself out there every day by stating opinions or producing work that are available for public critique, however, any vendor who produces software or services is similarly exposed. Public discourse and critique (both positive and negative) is a powerful means to improve the quality of what we do. I critique the business intelligence industry, not as an outsider, but as a committed insider who strongly believes in what we’re doing—so much that I’ve dedicated my professional life to improving it.

When people react to things that I say, I try to respond with substance, whether or not their reaction contained substance, as long as they made an honest effort to explain themselves. There is a threshold, however, below which I won’t respond at all. Anyone who thoughtlessly and cowardly posts a quick anonymous jab doesn’t deserve a response. I resist the juvenile temptation of schoolyard taunts. (By the way, you won’t find any examples of this type of comment on my blog, because on those rare occasions when they appear, I routinely delete them.) Vendors that try to suppress me by using political pressure to censor my work find that such attempts have no effect at all. (I currently publish my blog and most of my articles through my own organization, rather than through a publication that is financed by money that comes from BI vendors, to remove anyone’s financial interests from having control over my work.)

Just as our government leaders often get bogged down in unproductive bickering, we in the business intelligence industry (or any industry, for that matter) are prone to the same. Nothing good comes of this. We are better than this—or should be. Let’s make good use of our powerful minds to think critically. Only when we do this will we build a business intelligence industry that deserves its name.

Business Gauges — BI vendors just don’t get it

March 9th, 2007

The sad truth is, most BI vendors don’t understand business intelligence, and they never will until customers demand software that really works. As long as you don’t know what you need or are easily taken in by flashy screens that provide a level of intelligence that’s geared for toddlers, the vendors will continue to crank out more and more useless drivel. It all looks the same. Most vendors determine what to do with their products based on what the other guys are doing. If the other guys are making dashboard gauges that you can hardly read because the information is obscured behind simulated glare (see below), then vendors will bust their butts to develop a new gauge that is so hidden in glare you’ll need to wear sun glasses to look at it at all.

Here’s the latest example from a newcomer called Business Gauges:

Business Gauges

If you squint really hard, you can barely make out some of the values. But who cares, because if you’re an executive who likes to pretend that you’re driving a car while sitting at your desk rather than actually managing your business, then having a dashboard that is truly informative doesn’t really matter. According to the press release, “Business Gauges lets you monitor your business performance using hovering gauges on your desktop and centralized data sensors. Business Gauges is an agile, easy-to-use software, allowing any company or organization, of any scale, to gain the competitive advantage of using real-time business dashboard software.” Hovering gauges? Who wouldn’t be thrilled with that? Centralized data sensors? I have no idea what this means, but it definitely sounds cool. And who doesn’t want to be agile? At one point in the press release the product is called “a deviceful executive dashboard software.” Deviceful? Oh my god, I can already see the flood of competing ads claiming to have the product that is the most deviceful of them all. If you’re the type of person who can read meaningless marketing hype like this and think it actually makes sense, then this is definitely the product for you.

I’m sure that the people behind Business Gauges have the same intentions as all the other vendors out there: they’re out to make money. They’re convinced that you want your software to look like a toy, so that’s what they’re giving you. And you know what? This product will probably wind up on thousands of desktops, but the world will be poorer for it.

Don’t stand for this! Show the vendors that you actually care about getting information that is meaningful. Only one thing will put an end to the onslaught of crap that floods the business intelligence market: you must refuse to buy it. And I’m not just talking about Business Gauges; I’m talking about any product from any vendor (including the big guys) that was not developed to solve real problems in ways that actually work.

Take care,

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Advizor Solutions SalesAdvizor — Blazing a trail that all good visual analysis vendors should follow

March 1st, 2007

Today, I was briefed on a new software product (not SalesAdvizor, which I’ll get to shortly), which provides dashboard and visual analysis functionality. During the course of the briefing, I occasionally asked if they were planning to provide particular visual analysis features that I consider not only useful but essential. A common response was, “We’ve considered that, but didn’t want to include any features that were too complicated for typical business users.” I fully support vendors’ efforts to keep software simple, but the most powerful graphs and techniques that have yet to be incorporated into all but a few business intelligence products, although unfamiliar, are extremely simple to understand and use. The fact that a particular type of graph or technique for interacting with data is used primarily by scientists or engineers doesn’t by definition make it complicated. For instance, even though box plots are unfamiliar to most business people and for that reason can seem intimidating, I can teach any business person of average intelligence how to comfortably read a box plot in a matter of minutes. I know this for a fact, because I do this routinely in my visual analysis workshop. Business intelligence vendors must learn to make a distinction between features that are truly complicated or useful only to a small set of specialists and those that are simply unfamiliar, but conceptually easy to learn and extremely useful to a broad audience.

I wrote the entire preceding paragraph to set the stage for this statement: I get very excited when a software vendor introduces powerful visual analysis methods to a broad business audience in a way that isn’t intimidating. Advizor Solutions has just started doing this in a new way, in the form of a product called SalesAdvizor. This is nothing but an application for analyzing sales data tailored specifically for users of Salesforce.com, which was built using the general purpose visual analysis software Advizor Analyst. Not only does this pre-package useful means to examine and analyze sales data, but it slips in several features that people might shy away from if introduced using technical terms such as “brushing” or “dynamic filters,” which seem perfectly natural and easy to learn when delivered as a pre-packaged sales analysis product.

I believe this is fertile ground for good visual analysis products. Find a popular business application that lacks good analytics (that is, most of them), such as Salesforce.com, and then use your software to build a custom visual analysis application for it. Business people who might suffer paralysis if required to build an analysis process from scratch, will often welcome one that’s already predesigned for the task and integrated into the familiar territory of an application they already use. Furthermore, I predict that these same business people, after a little practice with an analytical application such as this, will soon venture out to create new analyses on their own, involving graphs and data interaction techniques they would have previously avoided as the intimidating and ethereal territory of experts.

My hat is off to Advizor Solutions for spotting this opportunity with Salesforce.com and putting a powerful analytical tool in their customers’ hands. The key to the success of a venture like this, assuming it’s built on the foundation of a good visual analysis product, is the domain expertise (in this case, a deep knowledge of sales and how it should be analyzed) and the data visualization expertise that’s built into it. If you don’t understand sales, the best visual analysis tool in the world won’t save the day. Nor will it overcome poor visual design practices, such as using segmented pie charts to examine part-to-whole relationships, rather than simple bar graphs, which are much easier to read. I hope the best for Advizor Solutions new venture and hope that other good visual analysis software vendors will follow their lead.

Take care,

Signature

Bling your Graph–Is Swivel Serious?

February 27th, 2007

When I first discovered Swivel.com, I was encouraged that a website was providing a venue for the presenting, discussing, and collaborating around important data, despite its problems. When the folks there responded positively to my recommendations, I was hopeful that the site might evolve into something useful. One of the latest features, which they proudly refer to as the ability to “bling your graph,” however, has put an end to these hopes. What a shame.

Here’s their explanation of the new feature:

In this world of customization, individualization, tricking trucks, pimping rides, and extreme makeovers, we here at Swivel wanted to allow users to further express themselves in their graphs…What does it mean to bling a graph? It means you can add a photo as the background image of your graph. Just click on the Bling button.

Swivel Bling

Swivel has joined the swelling ranks of those who believe that important information can be enhanced by sprucing it up with gratuitous decoration. This might be appropriate for advertising, but it is the death of data. Blinging your graph is to graphical presentation what a lobotomy is to brain function. At least they’ve given this feature a name that accurately describes its purpose. If you want your data to impress those who prefer superficial sparkle to the substance of important information communicated clearly, Swivel is the site for you. There are so many ways that the ability to share data and worthwhile findings could be improved on Swivel. What a travesty that a feature that is not only useless but also undermines the purpose of the site occupied their attention and efforts. If you want to make sense of data and share what you’ve discovered with others, you would do better to try out Many Eyes.

BI Desktop—Widgets for people who would rather play than work

February 21st, 2007

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:

Business Objects Sample Widgets

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.

Inventory Breakdown

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.

My Conclusion

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.

Take care,

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