The potential false promise of self-service BI

Self ServiceSelf-service BI applications are the new hot thing. Well .. not new exactly, they have been around for some time. But it seems that the embracement of cloud has sparked new life in the marketing machine of many vendors of self-service BI applications.

The topic ”what is self-service BI” deserves a separate post. In short, it is the ability to make your own reports and dashboard with a minimal technical skill set. Many vendors exploit this by marketing their tool as the “one and only”. Buy their tool and magical things will happen.

If not informed properly you may find yourself disappointed by the result. I have witnessed customers choosing the wrong solution because of this. But, can you blame them?

Imagine your company having issues with providing right information at the right time. Imagine that you have been struggling with this for years and out of the blue a vendor promises that all that pain is a thing of the past. Wouldn’t you at least be curious?

The half-truth and nothing but the half-truth
Your curiosity leads to an appointment with a salesperson who further emphasizes that everything is possible. Sometimes they even bring in an “expert” who further answers every question you have with a firm “Yes, it can”. Miraculously they don’t need to know anything about your business except for the number of users. Further along in the meeting they start to flash with slick demo material and references emphasizing that this was all very easy and zero effort was required.

You are missing something
Impressed and excited you initiate a project. Meetings are scheduled labeled “business requirements”. It’s time for the first meeting and you start stating the questions you would need to have answered. You expect the consultant in front of you to open the application and magically generate the right numbers. But no such thing happens. Instead the consultant frowns and busily writes your questions down and continuous with his interview.

After an hour or so the consultant stands up and thanks you for your time. You ask; “what’s next” on which the consultants replies; “Based on these requirements will have to configure the application”. “What do you mean”, you ask. The consultant replies “We need to pre-configure the different data so these questions can be answered properly”. The consultant sees the glare in your eyes and says “We need to create a proper foundation”.

Foundation? What does he mean ? Isn’t the data stored in my systems enough? Didn’t the salesperson promise that all we need is their application?

The foundation, one piece of the puzzle for a better user experience
You can think of the foundation as a layer in which the different ingredients for your questions are stored. But these are already stored in my systems, you may ask. Well, yes and no. To explain I will need to use an example.

Let’s say your question is “Show the number of leads in 2013”. The system in which leads are registered records all the different ingredients needed to answer this question. However, some ingredients need to be transformed. Let me explain. The system records the date on which a lead was created but for you to be able to simply select a year (2013 in this case) we need to separate the year from the date so that you can select the year exclusively making the overall experience better.

This is exactly what the foundation is for, help to support a smooth and overall better user experience. But this is only one piece of the puzzle. The application you use to answer the questions (that which you will use to interact with your data) also needs to fit your preferred way of working.

Take home message
An analogy I often use is mobile. Since the commercial success of the Apple iPhone a new understanding of what provides a good user experience was born. Today most major phone vendors realize that for the user experience to be good you need to provide both good hardware and good software. Moreover, they need to be attuned to each other.

Linking this back to our example, a better user experience is only feasible by providing both a good end tool (like the self-service application in our example) and a good foundation (architecture) which is attuned to the business. This attunement also means involvement from the business, this is something for a future post.

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