Today's software product managers and product executives face a major inescapable trend that affects their customers on a daily basis. The amount of digital information for businesses is exploding. In fact, IDC estimates that the total amount of digital information in the world is growing at 60% annually—essentially increasing ten-fold every five years. It won't slow down any time soon, thanks to new mobile devices like smartphones and tablets, and social media like Twitter, Facebook, and many others, some of which haven't even been invented yet.
This unprecedented growth in data volume, velocity, and variety has created the Big Data challenge that software vendors must face, whether their product is an established Business Intelligence (BI) system or simply a solution that manages users’ key data – a hospital system, an HR tool, etc.
But simply having more data, more reports and more analytics to show users doesn’t automatically translate to better products. Data is only useful if it is presented in the right way to the right user in the right context. It is the ultimate usability challenge.
InformationWeek's 2012 BI and Management Trends Report lists ease of use as one of the top barriers to the adoption of BI systems and features. Gartner’s 2012 Magic Quadrant survey ranks ease of use as the number one purchase consideration for BI platforms.
Self-Service Across Your User Base
Two primary drivers push the ease-of-use analytics trend.
First, consumer products that feature modern, simple user interfaces are setting a new bar in the industry. From Apple to Facebook to SalesForce.com, customers who have gotten used to the user experience of consumer products now also expect this level of usability in all software systems.
Google knows this—they've tweaked the user interface for Google Analytics twice in the past year as they become the prime example of a consumer-oriented analytics system for use by home and business users everywhere. In an interview, Lucas Pettinati the Lead UX Designer of Google Analytics said, "We are contemplating a lot of things to really put the user in control over the reports that they are looking at." Google recognizes that ease of use means opening what might otherwise be complex data reports to a broad range of new users.
Second, organizations realize that to benefit from analytics, the use of these systems can't just be limited to expert business analysts. Data needs to be available and pervasive throughout the organization.
With the proliferation of data volume, velocity, and sources, the solution isn't to push out larger and larger volumes of data to end-users. As Arnab Gupta, CEO of Opera Solutions, said at the 2012 Big Data conference, “The real battlefield is, ultimately, are you making data usable to people on the front line, to a person who is not technical […] but it helps them do their job a lot better?”
To let business users access and analyze data how and when they want, systems must be self-service. Everyone, not just the CEO, but also Charlotte in Accounting, Sateesh in Marketing, and Ryan in Development, must be able to find and parse the data they need, whenever and wherever they want to do it.
Ease of Use? Easier Said Than Done
Nevertheless, many traditional BI solutions get low marks for usability. According to Gartner’s BI Platforms User Survey, 2011: Customers Rate their BI Platform, companies like SAP, IBM, and Pentaho have below average ease of use. They suffer from the fact that the people who actually use BI/analytics systems aren't sitting at the table when the buying decision is made, the applications were designed years ago and haven't been updated to today's usability standards, and serving too many user groups.
So why do intelligent, experienced, and educated designers and product managers produce software that frustrates their user base? And how do you avoid falling into the same trap?
As we explain in our paper Has The Usability Revolution Left Enterprise Software Behind?, traditional BI product managers face many roadblocks - complicated legacy code, architecture constraints, and the risk of alienating the established user base.
But one of the most prevalent factors at companies large and small is simply that product managers and executives are not given the right resources to carry out meaningful user experience design. Most product managers fully understand the need for usability, but don’t have the right user experience design team in-house, nor the budget or time to do it alone.
Step One: The Right Design Support
In order to deliver the promise of easy-to-use, self-service analytics to a broad range of users, successful product managers and executives are working with a user experience design team that consists of three distinct skill sets:
Design research. Design researchers specialize in uncovering user needs. They train for years to learn how to interview and observe users. Their findings yield incredible insights that can be used to determine how data needs to be presented, and in what context, depending on the type of user.
Interaction design. Interaction designers are the masters of intuitive layouts, workflows, and content prioritization. They plan what the experience of receiving, exploring and acting on the data will be like—usually in the form of sketches called “wireframes”.
Visual design. Visual designers are graphical experts specializing in tools like Photoshop and Illustrator to construct the data visualization. Good visual designers can provide users with an instant emotional connection to a product, a critical requirement even for business products today.
Each discipline is so different from the other that companies are best served with even part-time help from a specialist in each area rather than one full-time jack of all trades. To bring true usability to the table, you cannot ignore any of the ingredients of this recipe.
There's a lot to do to make sure your analytics solution is provides the ease of use demanded by today’s broad range of customers. But the first thing is to make sure you've got the right team behind you. Once you do that, the rest should fall into place.
About the Author
Asif is a strategic and product marketing executive with over 20 years professional experience. He has defined, championed, marketed and launched diverse products to markets worldwide. Asif has worked with large multi-national corporations to start-ups, to established mid-sized businesses and his experience stretches from technology, to services, to the manufacturing sector.
Asif is a leader and doer whose experience and advice has inspired, influenced, and cajoled teams to deliver results in a wide variety of situations. A polished communicator, he is known for distilling complex market situations and ideas into clear revenue generating action plans.
He loves to explore the unknown, whether in business or personal pursuits, and has twice independently traveled around the world expanding his personal understanding of the interconnectedness of all people. A passionate photojournalist, Asif’s photographs have been exhibited in Canada and the US. A father of two young boys, Asif can be found coaching hockey in the winter and enjoying the outdoors in summer.
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