Monday, February 07, 2011

Business intelligence and the iPad

I have been observing the wave of BI vendors coming out with applications for the iPad with some interest. QlikTech and MicroStrategy, who are always quick to move with the latest market trends, were among the first. IBM Cognos waited for their new release but also have a client as well. And with SAP having just spent billions on Sybase for its mobile technology, it’s not surprising to see SAP has also jumped into the fray with a new iPad client for Crystal Reports and the BusinessObjects Explorer – though not, as far as I know, using Sybase technology.

But the point here is not to list all the iPad BI clients available – I am sure I have missed a few. What interest me more is the question of how these interfaces are designed. The key to making a mobile reporting interface work is to squeeze interface onto a very small screen. There are lots of tricks for doing this, most of them involving navigations tricks with simple gestures to make traversing the interface feel natural.

But the iPad really does not have that small a screen. In fact, with a 9.7 inch diagonal, it is about the same size as an Asus Eee screen. It does not weigh a lot less either. But despite Eee’s success, business intelligence companies were not falling all over themselves to create a new interface of the Eee.

Furthermore, in my opinion, the interface that Apple gave the iPad is not quite appropriate. The first time I saw it I just thought, “Oh cool, it’s like the biggest iPhone ever”, and so did many other people, I suspect. But frankly, the iPhone interface does not expand all that well. In short, the iPhone interface is a good interface because it is visually attractive and it handles the severe size constraint it is subject to quite well. To make this possible, the users’ choices are intentionally limited, but users do not mind since the device is so small. But the IPad does not really have this constraint, and so the restrictions are more of an inconvenience. Furthermore, the bigger screen gives the user way of interacting with the software, so looking simple becomes more and more cryptic.

So iPad interfaces tend to discard the typical desktop standards that have been accepted over the decades (for better or worse) and replace them with a concept that is finely tuned for a completely different format. But most users – especially users of business tools as opposed to toys – are more interested in the content of the application than in fancy interaction techniques. Business intelligence vendors may be better off just making sure their Web applications work well on Safari running on the IPad than spending time developing iPad specific applications.


Russell Christopher said...

Maybe it's the fact that I work in the Media & Entertainment verticals, but most of my customers are *very* much interested in fancy interaction techniques and flashy visuals.

They (only half-jokingly) say things like "the look and feel of the report and the way I can interact with it are just as important as the numbers themselves".

For them, "coolness" has primacy (part of the whole consumerization of IT thing) - and part of the "cool experience" is delivering the information on a device perceived to be "cutting edge and hip".

As someone working at a company that doesn't yet have a homegrown BI slate app, I hope *you're right*. But my experience thus far has been that users are underwhelmed with a browser experience after being inside an app - and these people are driving IT spend more and more these days.

big data fanatic and bi guru said...

Microstrategy is committed to beat competitors with a specific application for the iPad; they were among the very first that is true, but I will raise the question here will mobile business intelligence help us to gain more benefit from BI; in other words; will mobile BI increase the success ratio of BI projects? In my opinion this could be the case because managers are even more teased to browse the corporate information in an very easy way; however the key is that they will use information for analysis and action; I'm not sure the iPad is the perfect platform for doing (complex) analysis.

Alan E said...

Barney - I think you miss the point with this post on two fronts...

Firstly, the fundamental change in paradigm with iPad (or any other touch-oriented device for that matter) is that the desktop standards developed over the past few decades don't translate. Historically, UIs have been designed for users with a mouse and keyboard and therefore they use concepts such as scroll bars, hover tooltips, fine grained UI elements, etc. You need a new approach when dealing with a touch oriented interface based around larger, more explicit elements and this is why I think simply pushing the historical interfaces to the tablet device will yield a sub-par experience.

Secondly, by ignoring the UI design principles of a platform you break the consistency of experience for the user, forcing them to think differently just to interact with your app. Have you had to go from a Windows app that employs the Fluent/ribbon UI to one that uses the old WinXP File-Edit menu? It's jarring and forces you to rethink how to do things. Same with the tablet interfaces - if your app doesn't follow the same design principles and support swipes/gestures/etc then you dislocate the user experience.

Unknown said...

Christopher: I think there are some pretty cool browser based BI apps. Admittedly, the tend to be Flash!

Unknown said...

Alan -- You are basically right about consistency, but I have always had my lingering doubts that the argument is just a way to lock users in to an existing environment.

I am just thinking that consistency with big-screen devices might be more appropriate. My personal impression is that the iPad is too sparse. I suspect that Apple shut out Flash because existing cross-platform solutions would work well enough on the iPad.

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