What should UX Design do for Business Intelligence?
Change is inevitable
The world of Business Intelligence and Data Analysis is in a transition period, probably the biggest one yet, where humans and their trained skills or lack thereof become more important than ever. Some BI companies have long advocated the need to democratise access to data and humanise ways of interacting with, understanding and communicating it. The analysts and the industry are catching up. Forbes is talking about the increasing need for Self Service and putting the power of analysing data, not only in the hands of niche specialists and data analysts, but in the hands of knowledge workers and business users. BI trends for 2016 included statements like “Data is the New Water” and as generic number one: “Evolution of Self-Service BI”. Some would argue that while all of these predictions are fun and all, data analysis (or the preparation needed to enable data analysis) remains a task for experts and “smart people”. Solving the really hard data problems will still require a lot of expertise, time and big investments for the overseeable future. This is hard to argue with, judging from what we have out there today. To be content with this would mean that we are also missing a major point, and an opportunity. I’ve observed the change in interest and sentiment slowly happening in real life. Companies and whole businesses want to be up to speed and the people working there are really starting to realise the good use and potential of being well-informed by data in todays connected world. For UX designers data has always been a key part in understanding a problem space. There is a ton to read about data-driven and data-informed design practises and examples.
This increased need for understanding data and turning it in to information has little to do with skillsets or even roles within an organisation. If we generalize for a moment, I’d say it is hard to find anyone who wouldn’t want to be well-informed before making a decision about something that really counts, if only the chance is given. Now we’re starting to see the change that we have been talking about for some time; companies are actually starting to distribute data analysis throughout their whole organisation so that everyone in need of information has it close at hand. A selling point for BI products has long been the ever increasing amount of data around us, but I think it becomes even more interesting if we put it in slightly different words. The selling point for a capable data analysis tool should be the increasing amount of meaningful and relevant information around us. Potentially useful for every single human being on earth, with no discrimination. A maybe subtle but important difference. Today, because of different accessibility barriers, data is not meaningful or useful to everyone but information is. Hence, Information > Data. The information just needs to be teased out first.
The selling point for a capable data analysis tool is the increasing amount of meaningful and relevant information around us. Potentially useful for every single human being on earth, with no discrimination.
Putting people out of work for the greater good?
If we look to history, there have been numerous examples of how revolutionary evolution can be when it comes to creating solutions supporting user needs out there. Sometimes it is about finding new, hitherto unimagined needs. When we have had paradigm shifts in technology or design, it has brought about massive change for the humans using it. These leaps could come from new technology being created, or making better use of existing technology through changing the approach and thinking. Good experience and product design lies behind many of these disruptions. Sometimes these innovations come at the expense of whole professions and thereby stirring up controversy.
In the 1440’s, Johannes Gutenberg started an information revolution with the invention of the printing press, which little later made the printed newspaper possible. The newspaper industry gave birth to different roles with different skills needed to create a newspaper. From content creation to (in particular) editing rooms, these roles and skill sets remained pretty much the same for much of the 1900’s until the computer came and totally changed everything in the 1970’s. With digital desktop editing tools and digital photography, whole professions quickly went out the door. In recent years, the newspaper industry is struggling to adapt to the second wave of challenges; our times media channels, new devices and changed consumption patterns.
When it comes to photography, the introduction of the digital camera eventually killed off iconic company Kodak. The smartphone and well designed apps directed to a mass audience totally changed and challenged the business landscape for digital cameras. Something that is very dear to me, the art of music production, has also seen massive changed due to new technology and design in recent years. Professionally composing, recording, producing and distributing a song in the 90’s demanded an insane amount of money, people, equipment, skills and hours of work. Now you can pretty much do it on your laptop, from your bedroom, in one evening! When Über came along, it threatened job security for traditional cab drivers. Now they are launching their first self-driving Volvo cabs in Pittsburgh, which begs the question of what will happen to the over 1 million Über drivers out there in the long run.
All of these are examples of paradigm shifts that have had or will have quite uncomfortable effects for some. But they also have another thing in common; they’re examples of carrying the core value proposition of a product, service or a function to way more people and customers by simplifying access to it. They provide value in more ways and through additional channels that the old way of doing things just didn’t, often cheaper and easier. That said, in product and service design evolution there are always compromises. Sometimes these are actual sacrifices and sometimes simply a matter of ridding ourselves of old habits and embracing change. It can be a matter of giving up some of the detailed control over an end result or coming to terms with the fact that some expert knowledge no longer is needed, while other experience is even more valuable. These sacrifices are often generally accepted because they are in the public’s best interest. Could it be that BI experts & Data analysts are in line to re-school or loose their job? It is very unlikely that it will happen overnight, but almost certain that it will happen. And because this development is in the public’s interest, as a designer I will do my best to make it so.
The responsibility of UX design in Business Intelligence
In short, UX Design is a people-centered discipline. As designers, we try and simplify technology and make it as accessible and enjoyable as possible to our fellow human beings, with as little discrimination as possible. At the same time, we need to combine a delightful experience that provides a lot of value for the customer with good business value for ourselves as a company or service provider, all put together in a feasible, achievable package. I’m borrowing a model from IDEO’s definition of design thinking, to get a little perspective on Business Intelligence and maybe how we can spark change. This is a field that has mainly been advanced by technological developments; limited mainly by what is possible to do with a personal computer or a server, how much RAM memory we have, calculation engines and CPU power. The more and bigger data we have, the more computing power we need. And these are aspects that certainly can’t be ignored, however they shouldn’t by themselves dictate or be the sole definition of how we advance user and customer value.
When looking at Business Intelligence, there are numerous up n’ coming companies and products focusing on providing data analysis for the ‘ordinary man’, some more niched than others. And there are several, more traditional, BI vendors that are trying to catch up with the developments, adjusting to the new situation and trends. But, in simple words, the newer kids on the block might have a product or service that “speaks” to the common people, with a pleasant tone of voice and proclaiming ease-of-use but are thin in actual problem solving for those in need. And while many of the more established companies have very capable and mature technological capabilities and can cater for more nuanced needs, they lack when it comes to presenting that in an accessible, understandable and useful way. Let alone making it a fun, pleasant or rewarding experience. This is partly due to the fact that the task of taking raw data, especially from several and different sources, and transforming it in to understandable information and actionable insights can be a demanding process and is by its very nature quite… hard.
For that task we have the Data expert, naturally adept at untying hard-to-solve ambiguities and decoding scary, archaic data structures. The Data Expert won’t shy away from investing a lot of time and energy in getting data in order to enable others to then look at, analyse and get some value out of it. This user is quick to grasp and accept the technical nature of data, with all its possibilities and limitations. The problem is that these people don’t grow on trees. They might also be sitting far from the ones actually needing the insights and lack in understanding of how they need to use them in the end. Even in the case where this setup works, the chain of events to then get the answer to the next question, and the next, is far too long. This is why there is a lot of talk about Self Service within Business Intelligence and Data Analysis. Another problem with having the data expert around is that we tend to create products that mainly are directed to his/her expertise, simply because it is convenient and easy. And that is to shy away from our responsibility.
Change is inevitable. We need to embrace it and do our best to make sure we don’t discriminate anyone who is in need of information just because they are not engineers with a deep understanding of how to work with data. Not everyone wants to work with data, but anyone could at least potentially have a pressing need to get a clear understanding of the information that hides within it. Data is information, information gives knowledge and knowledge is power. Power to change or to influence, to create or to shape, to assess and to improve. For the individual and for the business. It is a power far too important to be denied so many people. A user-centered approach, ambitions and some good design work can move the needle a little, so that we can enable more people to transform data into information. And if it is at the expense of a few jobs along the way, so be it.