Tuesday, April 8, 2014

12 traits of really effective BI Portals

As BI professionals, I think we have a tendency to devote our time, effort, and attention to building our applications from the inside out. We really like to focus on creating really great architectures and engineering applications that emphasize performance, capacity, flexibility, reliability and accuracy. This is how we, and perhaps our peers and superiors, tend to evaluate us and it is certainly what our vendors like to promise us. It is not, however, what our customers care about as it is not what they see or directly experience. For them, now that virtually all BI applications are web and/or mobile enabled, the application user interface (UI) is the experience. An otherwise good application with a bad UI will not create much in the way of customer satisfaction.

It is tempting to cop out a bit on this by relying on your BI application vendor to develop the UI and simply go with it. There are a couple of problems with this. One is that the leading vendors in the BI space have not really prioritized their UI, and it shows. Most provide the capability to customize the UI or embed it within another application, but this is not done often enough. The other problem is that our users are rarely confined to a single tool despite all attempts to standardize. As a result, they must adapt to multiple inconsistent UIs and this turns them off.

One proven way to create a delightful UI that effectively supports the process of decision making is to embed your applications within a single coherent well-executed portal. There are many ways to go about this, but the successful ones have many traits in common.

1.       They are highly customizable, but with common content and look and feel
BI portals on the web are just like any other site in that they are more effective when some level of personalization is possible. One size does not fit all. Different jobs and roles have different requirements, and everyone likes to tweak those looks to their taste. Some functions and data will be common to all though. The look, feel and reference data should be consistent across all roles to ease transitions and maintain intuitive navigation (See #3.)

2.       They are easy to use. Little or no documentation or training required
Not much to explain here. If your portal requires extensive documentation or training, it is not intuitive enough. If the functionality is so complex or sophisticated that specialized training is needed, you have developed an analytic tool, not a general BI portal.

3.       They are easy to navigate with search that really works
It is hard to overstate the importance of this. We can Google so much of the world’s knowledge, why not our company data? Failure here will overwhelm your support operation.

4.       They have help that helps; and someone to call when it doesn't
Don’t rely on vendor help content. Customize it and make it relevant to your users and roles. Include FAQs and update constantly.

5.       They are trustworthy, relevant and well governed
This is another one that is not optional. Nothing kills any BI application faster than a reputation for having bad information. Make sure your sources are documented so users know whom to call with questions. Obsolete data is almost as bad. Assign responsibility for removing what is no longer valid, needed or just plain noise. Don’t let this fall victim to budget cutting.

6.       They are fast
Speed is taken for granted these days on the web. That does not mean all queries are sub-second, but set expectations properly – people also understand cost/benefit when it is communicated and negotiable.

7.       They are responsive to multiple devices
Like everyone else these days, we must accept the reality that access must be supported on multiple screen types. That does not mean we just shrink the experience for phones though. Use cases vary by device.

8.       They handle structured and unstructured data equally well
It’s not just about tables and pie charts anymore. We can now process and manipulate images, video, text and audio. All of these can support better decisions and should be available to query.

9.       They do not try to be all things to all people
Trying to do too much creates complexity. If a requirement for one group or role falls too far outside your architecture, develop it outside the portal with a link. This is particularly true of advanced analytics, data discovery and modeling functionality.

10.   They are secure
The paradox here is that we work hard to create applications that make key information easily accessible to all who need it. If we are not careful, we create one-stop shopping for those who might steal or abuse it. It does not have to be a usability burden if done right, but fight any temptation to under-invest here.

11.   They promote collaboration
Decision making and modeling are inherently collaborative processes. How many endless email threads must we wade through to get the benefit of group input and multiple viewpoints? Our BI vendors have only recently started to recognize this, but portal software is usually the best tool for this job.

12.   They are monitored, supported and evolve over time
No matter how well you execute, your experience can always get better. Get feedback and listen to it. Have your support team reach out on a regular basis proactively to see what is working out there and what isn't. Establish a testing program for usability enhancements as well as new functionality. Take a lesson from commercial sites and devote some development bandwidth to small improvements that can be done outside the project schedule and budget. This way you can develop experiments and deploy successful ones in production.

These may seem like worthy, but pretty lofty ambitions that are very hard to achieve. It is far from impossible. There are many examples of successful internal corporate information portals that have most or all of these traits; but if you have not worked at one of those firms, you may not have seen one. If you need an example that we can all see, consider the portals that the consumer investment services firms provide for their customers. Sites like Fidelity, Schwab, and their peers have been in the business of supporting the investment decisions of their customers online for many years and have devoted considerable time and effort to optimizing their experiences to the point where they do all of these things well. If you are a customer of one of these firms, consider their sites and apps in relation to these 12 traits and I think you will see what I mean.

As always, all comments and discussion welcome.