Big (and Smart) Data On The Go

by Drew Davidson

Editor Note:  This is the first post in a series I wrote with ÄKTA’s Senior Researchers, David Mierke and Aaron Agustin.

“I look back on the days I averaged only thirty thousand steps, and think, Honestly, how lazy can you get? When I hit thirty-five thousand steps a day, Fitbit sent me an e-badge, and then one for forty thousand, and forty-five thousand.[Without my Fitbit] Walking twenty-five miles, or even running up the stairs and back, suddenly seemed pointless, since, without the steps being counted and registered, what use were they?” – David Sedaris (The New Yorker, June 2014)

Living in Data Driven Culture

We live in a data driven culture. Modern life is increasingly becoming more akin to driving a car with a sophisticated and intelligent digital dashboard. Whether as household consumers or as corporate users, we are gradually getting surrounded by an array of products that record, organize and analyze our real-time activities. Products that also elegantly display recommendations intended to mobilize us in making smarter choices for ourselves, our households and for our organizations. More so, as prolific consumers of well-tailored information, we also expect these digital dashboards to operate more intuitively and be integrated more seamlessly into our personal ecosystem of devices.

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Where it all began.
Consumer products like Fitbit, Nike Fuel Band, and Mint.com have their own microcosm versions of the dashboards seen in business. Before they made their way into the household user’s hands, tracing the history of digital dashboards will lead you to the business world. Digital dashboards were born from a concept that originated in the 1970’s called Decision Support Systems (DSS). These were essentially computerized information systems designed to support decision-making in an organization or business. Only recently have they been adopted for consumer products and services.

Digital dashboards, being the brainchild of DSS, came later in the 1990’s as a way to help consolidate hefty amounts of data being collected and reported across multiple departments within a large organization. They were also designed to extrapolate and present static reports in a comprehensible and visually acceptable manner. Generally, the development of dashboards was part of internal efforts headed by top management and IT departments to assist line employees who needed vast heaps of data analyzed, but lacked the appropriate expertise to mine, structure and make sense of the data.

A Strategic Imperative.
Today, dashboards continue to fulfill their core value of aiding decision-making but at a far more robust degree. Dashboards have evolved from just static reporting to being a real interactive tool to help users discover insight from data. As such, the once isolated efforts of individual businesses have gained momentum across multiple industries over the years. Business intelligence is no longer just an operational requirement – it is now considered a strategic initiative that can drive topline and bottom line growth.

Lisa Kart, research director at Gartner – the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company – says, “Our survey underlines the fact that organizations across industries and geographies see ‘opportunity’ and real business value rather than the ‘smoke and mirrors’ with which hypes usually come.” Their 2013 report indicated that 64% of organizations are already investing or planning to invest in business intelligence (BI) tools.1

Ubiquitous Mobility.
Digital dashboards, though initially a sub-category of BI tools, have crossed over to the consumer space because it delivers the same value proposition of helping and guiding users make informed choices on-demand. Whether in a corporate setting or at a community park, dashboards are essentially pathways where messy, raw data flows from where it is collected and stored, to the hands of decision-makers who need to consume them in palatable, bite-size pieces.

There is an upward potential to take advantage of designing digital dashboards correctly for business or household end-users. As much as they are now infiltrating the consumer space, corporations are also investing in mobile BI tools. Executives and managers want on the go information and decision-making capabilities. Although BI tools within the mobile space should be designed differently than their desktop counterparts, it is gaining momentum.

Whether you’re looking to develop digital dashboards for household or business end-users, the key to success lies not only in being able to determine what your users want to accomplish using the available data, but to also understand how they interact with their devices in the context of ubiquitous connectivity. User interface experience and design will vary across different devices and user journeys and will therefore affect the tools’ functionalities, interactivity and overall value.

The Future of Digital Dashboards.
David Stodder, director of TDWI Research, a division of The Data Warehousing Institute (TDWI) wrote in a report called “Mobile Business Intelligence and Analytics: Extending Insight to a Mobile Workforce”:

“The ultimate role of mobile BI may not be to simply replicate what’s been done on desktops and workstations or to merely act as clients in existing architectures. Mobile devices facilitate information on the go and the application of information insights to dynamic situations with colleagues, business partners and customers. Strategies and expectations should be different.” 2

It’s clear from the reports that the trajectory of digital dashboards for consumer and business users is in an upward swing. What’s next in the horizon? There are two big factors to consider when thinking about employing digital dashboards in the future for any kind of user.

  • Device-specific information architecture: If you ask users of digital dashboards what information they want to access and monitor on their mobile devices everywhere they go, typically, they say that they want to see “everything”. However, if you observe their actual behavior, they’re typically only tracking a few key metrics on-the-go and rarely dig in to the copious amount of data they normally do when they are sitting at a computer. How do you choose what information and level of access each device should have in the end-user’s digital ecosystem?
  • Device-specific interaction design: While tablets are not new to consumers, they are still novelties for business users who are only beginning to rely more on dashboard-style reporting. There’s a growing baseline understanding in designing dashboards for mobile phones, but doing it for tablets is a new frontier. Compared to a phone, it has a larger screen that can display more data. Users are also on them for similar amounts of time they’re on their desktop computers. How does touch interaction differ between the two handheld devices? What are the impacts of these differences on usage and design?

Dashboards are great for summarizing a large amount of information, but often fail at helping the user identify important changes in the data if the user experience design does not incorporate device-specific nuances. These missed changes can have a significant impact on the business. Dashboard design needs to always include a layer of interpretation rather than just display real-time data.

If the core objective of designing and building digital dashboards for any kind of context is to help the end-user make informed decisions, then ultimately, you need to prioritize getting to know your users needs and behaviors first before diving into the development process. In the next few posts, we will be discussing widely accepted principles in designing intuitive digital user experiences and then narrow them down to what you need to incorporate for specific contexts and devices.

Sources:

1. Gartner Inc. (2013, September 23). “Gartner Survey Reveals That 64 Percent of Organizations Have Invested or Plan to Invest in Big Data in 2013”. Retrieved from https://www.gartner.com/newsroom/id/2593815
2. TDWI (2011, December). “Mobile Business Intelligence and Analytics: Extending Insight to a Mobile Workforce”. Retrieved from https://www.computerweekly.com/feature/Mobile-BI-sparks-recast-of-business-intelligence

image credit: diettogo.com

Author note: If you have any questions about designing intuitive user experiences or how to utilize digital dashboards, ask me in the comments, or tweet at me or David for more information.

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Drew Davidson is Vice President, Design at ÄKTA. He graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Psychology and a master’s in Computer Technology,  He has worked with Nielsen, Motorola, eBay and NASA. In 2006, he won Motorola’s People’s Choice Award for the best portrayal of a seamlessly mobile society, and in 2013, Business Insider named Drew one of the Top 75 Global Technology Designers.

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