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Ease-of-use key to successful business intelligence deployments
New-age vendors heed the call

by Lachlan James, Communications Officer, YellowfinbiSunday, July 10, 2011


We’ve all done it – shot them a fleeting glance from the corner of our eye, then stared unabashedly as they breezed past, parting the crowd, leaving a swell of murmurs and envious looks in their wake.  
And, just like a prom queen or a successful businessman at a high-school reunion, new-age consumer-oriented business intelligence (BI) products are standing out from the BI crowd.  How is that possible?  Simply put: ease-of-use without compromise.

2011 Wisdom of Crowds BI Market Study Signals Rise of the New-Age Vendor

The recently released Dresner Advisory Services (DAS) 2011 Wisdom of Crowds Business Intelligence Market Study indicates that the consumerization of BI, and the legitimate push towards BI for the masses that has accompanied that trend, has “unleashed the demand for solutions that are easier to buy, faster to deploy and easier to use.”

The global study compared 16 of the world’s leading BI vendors on a five-point scale, across 32 criteria.  Vendors were ranked on sales experience, value, quality and usefulness of product, quality of technical support, quality and value of consulting services, and whether existing clients would recommend the vendor and its product to others.  The results are based on feedback from 630 customers with first-hand experience with vendor products and services.

The report places vendors into four market categories:

  • Titans: Largest BI vendors
  • Established: Typically been in business for 15 or more years
  • Emerging: Younger companies with innovative products, business models and services
  • Open Source: Vendors with an open source approach to BI

Three of the four top average scores were awarded to vendors from the emerging category – new-age vendors whose products are more heavily focused on self-service BI for business users.  All five vendors in the emerging category also managed an overall score of four or more out of five. Of the remaining 11 vendors outside the emerging category, only three managed an average score above four.  Additionally, only three vendors were recommended by 100 percent of survey participants – all were from the emerging vendor category. 

These results are significant, suggesting that emerging BI vendors are better catering for, and addressing the needs and wants, of modern BI deployments and users.  While the emerging vendor category outperformed other vendor categories and vendor averages across all study metrics, it performed particularly strongly on usability related criteria, including online training, ease of administration, overall usability, ease of installation and third party integration, as well as ease of upgrade/migration.

But why is this significant? It’s significant because recent research has revealed that ease-of-use is now the most important aspect of a BI solution.  Both current and prospective BI users rate product usability as the most important factor for both the ongoing success of their BI implementations, and for selecting a BI solution.

Gartner says BI ease-of-use now number one criteria

In the fall-out from Gartner’s 2011 Magic Quadrant for Business Intelligence Platforms study, which ranked vendor products and services, ‘ease-of-use’ surpassed ‘functionality’ for the first time as the most important selection criteria when purchasing a BI platform.  The associated Gartner Research Note, BI Platforms User Survey, 2011: Customers Rate their BI Platform Functionality, stated that: “Strong functionality is clearly no longer enough... Vocal, demanding and influential business users are increasingly driving BI purchasing decisions, most often choosing easier to use data discovery tools over traditional BI platforms — with or without IT’s consent.”

The BeyeNETWORK on BI ease-of-use

These findings cement results garnered from the BeyeNETWORK’s 2010 research report, Ease of Use and Interface Appeal in Business Intelligence Tools, which revealed ease-of-use as an increasingly important factor for businesses looking to implement a BI solution or reassessing an existing one.

The 255 survey participants rated ease-of-use as more important than features or analytics, with 47 percent rating ease-of-use as ‘very important’, while 32 percent said that it was ‘essential’.
The study also directly links BI adoption to ease-of-use and, by extension, Return on Investment (ROI).  Organizations that described their BI solution as ‘very easy to use’ enjoyed significantly higher user adoption rates than those who described their BI tool as ‘somewhat easy’ or ‘difficult’ to use.  Survey results of BI organizations showed a correspondence between internal adoption of BI tools and ease-of-use: 35 percent for companies whose software was ranked ‘very easy to use’, compared to an average of 27 per cent, and 22 per cent for those listing their BI tool as ‘very difficult’ to use.

The report posits that the ROI for BI solutions – which depends mostly on user adoption - has been continually hindered by the complexity of traditional BI products.

But why is ease-of-use so important?

Industry studies over the past five years have shown that poor user adoption is one of the main reasons BI projects fail.  If users find a BI tool too difficult to use, they’ll simply abandon it.

As suggested in the BeyeNETWORK’s study on BI ease-of-use, the usability of a BI platform enables more people from across a business to independently access the benefits of data analysis to help them make better, timely, well-informed decisions.  A BI tool that empowers all types of users to easily perform their job function to a higher standard will enjoy sustained user adoption.

Therefore, pervasive self-service BI deployments, in conjunction with the ensuing widespread and sustainable end-user adoption, delivers superior ROI.  It achieves this in two ways:  By supplying actionable information to key business decision-makers and by enabling IT to deliver more usable information with less effort.

A recent article written by Kogent Corporation Executive Vice President, Brian Jordan, on SearchBusinessAnalytics.comWhy pervasive BI is a big deal for business intelligence users – further underlines the advantage of new-age BI solutions whose products are easy-to-use, thus enabling mass self-service deployments.

“Pervasive business intelligence is a big deal because people typically need actionable information in order to do their jobs. Companies without broad BI capabilities tend to make decisions based on gut feelings or instinct, which isn't a good way to do business,” explains Jordan.

“Effective business intelligence results from a combination of best practices and corporate culture. And the best implementations I’ve seen are ones in which everyday knowledge workers are being empowered by access to information and decision-making responsibilities. It’s relatively easy to make a good decision when you trust your data and the information is easy to find.”

The BeyeNETWORK report summarizes the benefit of an easy-to-use BI solution by stating that it “allows customers to devote more attention to understanding the data versus learning the tool.”  I couldn’t agree more.

However, according to a study by The Data Warehousing Institute in 2008, only 24 percent of potential BI users were using BI solutions.  Results from the BeyeNETWORK study indicate that BI usability and user adoption remain a considerable problem, with only 23 per cent of respondents listing their organization’s BI tool as easy to learn and use.

It is figures like this that new-age vendors aim to change.

So what makes a BI platform easy to use? 

Defining BI ease-of use: A product-oriented approach

It’s obvious that BI ease-of-use is a subjective topic and will differ according to a range of factors, including type of user, type of reporting and type of industry.  For the purpose of this discussion, key factors contributing to BI ease-of-use have been split between two core groups – IT/administrators and business users.

However, the BeyeNETWORK report concludes that while ease-of-use and ‘interface appeal’ are the two most critical elements for ensuring BI adoption, the results indicate that it’s not merely report consumers and casual business users who are demanding easy-to-use BI and visually appealing BI tools, but IT users and administrators as well.

The same BeyeNETWORK study also uncovers a second surprising point of interest: 81 percent of those surveyed said that they believed formal training was an important factor in BI ease-of-use and sustained adoption.  The report concludes that formal training, and the expectations surrounding formal training, directly affected a user’s perception toward a particular BI platform’s ease-of-use, and that training should be varied according to user type and job role.

What makes a BI platform easy to use for IT users?

Factors that make BI easier for the IT department to manage and maintain include:

  • Web-based deployments
  • An intuitive and appealing User Interface (UI)
  • In-memory analytics
  • The ability to automate regular activities, including report scheduling, as well as exception and alert-based reporting
  • Ability to easily combine data from different data sources
  • Ability to easily connect to an expansive range of data sources and types
  • Ease of deployment/installation
  • Ease of embedding and integrating with third party applications
  • Ease of upgrade/migration
  • The ability to easily scale to meet changing reporting needs
  • The ability to easily answer ad-hoc queries to allow IT to do more with less and deliver more BI and better serve the business
  • Ease of dashboard and report creation
  • Training specific to user role and job function
  • Ease of data segmentation and security of data: The ability to restrict data access based on user groups and robust user authentication processes

What makes a BI platform easy to use for Business users?

Factors that make BI easier for business users to consume and utilize effectively include:

  • Reducing the number of clicks it takes for business users to reach desired results/insights
  • Speed of report delivery – excessive wait times result in frustration and user drop-off
  • A metadata layer to shield users from underlying complexities
  • Easy drag and drop report building
  • Ability to independently interact and manipulate data: Easy drill through and drill down options
  • Ability to share insights and stay up-to-date via collaborative features and native mobile applications
  • Intuitive data visualizations to help understand and consume BI content – The ability to easily and quickly derive actionable business insights from the data presented in reports
    • Data visualizations can encourage user take-up and enable users to glean better business insights from data analysis.  While this is obviously true, complex data visualizations are a doubled-edged sword, with the ability to distract and detract from the consumption of data analysis.  The key to effective data visualization, analysis, and deeper insights is to make it easy by keeping it simple.  This ensures that the data, not the chart or graph, remains the center of focus.  Stephen Arnold in his article – Ease of Use: A Barrier to Business Intelligence Adoption – toes a similar line in relation to fancy UI and data visualizations, asserting that “Eye candy may not have the caloric value needed.  I prefer a system that combines both rigor and ease of use.”  Also, take heed of the irreverent modern-day data visualization expert and aficionado, Stephen Few, and his philosophy espoused in Information Dashboard Design: The Effective Visual Communication of Data:  “An effective dashboard [or report] is the product not of cute gauges, meters, and traffic lights, but rather of informed design: more science than art, more simplicity than dazzle. It is, above all else, about communication.”  Poor data visualization leads to user frustration, misuse, abuse, distrust, and ultimately, abandonment.  Great data analysis, through highly intuitive data visualizations, leads to satisfied, active and informed users, and remarkable ROI.
  • The ability to personalize settings, functions and features to enhance both perceived and actual usefulness
  • Training specific to user role and job function
  • An intuitive and appealing UI
  • The ability of the BI solution to “work as expected and [be] similar to another tool with which a user has experience” (such as a Web-browser) – BeyeNETWORK report

Ease-of-use is now the number one BI selection criteria

And with the continued consumerization of BI, its importance will only grow.  So keep it at the forefront of your thoughts and the top on your list when selecting your BI software.

Additional Resources

For more on data visualization best practices, check out this blog post: Business Intelligence: Intuitive vs cool data visualization and infographics.  Also, look out for our data visualization best practices guide, coming soon.

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