Thursday, March 01, 2007

Users Want Answers, Not Tools

I hope you appreciated that yesterday’s post about reports within the sample Lifetime Value system was organized around the questions that each report answered, and not around the report contents themselves. (You DID read yesterday’s post, didn’t you? Every last word?) This was the product of considerable thought about what it takes to make systems like that useful to actual human beings.

Personally I find those kinds of reports intrinsically fascinating, especially when they have fun charts and sliders to play with. But managers without the time for leisurely exploration—shall we call it “data tourism”?—need an easier way to get into the data and find exactly what they want. Starting with a list of questions they might ask, and telling them where they will find each answer, is one way of helping out.

Probably a more common approach is to offer prebuilt analysis scenarios, which would be packages of reports and/or recommended analysis steps to handle specific projects. It’s a more sophisticated version of the same notion: figure out what questions people are likely to have and lead them through the process of acquiring answers. There is a faint whiff of condescension to this—a serious analyst might be insulted at the implication that she needs help. But the real question is whether non-analysts would have the patience to work through even this sort of guided presentation. The vendors who offer such scenarios tell me that users appreciate them, but I’ve never heard a user praise them directly.

The ultimate fallback, of course, is to have someone else do the analysis for you. One of my favorite sayings—which nobody has ever found as witty as I do, alas—is that the best user interface ever invented is really the telephone: as in, pick up the telephone and tell somebody else to answer your question.. Many of the weighty pronouncements I see about how automated systems can never replace the insight of human beings really come down to this point.

But if that’s really the case, are we just kidding ourselves by trying to make analytics accessible to non-power users? Should we stop trying and simply build power tools to make the real experts as productive as possible? And even if that’s correct, must we still pretend to care about non-power users because they are often control the purchase decision?

On reflection, this is a silly line of thought. Business users need to make business decisions and they need to have the relevant information presented to them in ways they can understand. Automated systems make sense but still must run under the supervision of real human beings. There is no reason to try to turn business users into analysts. But each type of user should be given the tools it needs to do its job.


amar said...

We also wrote about the issue of BI tools not addressing the needs of the user decision making process and pointed to an

David Raab said...

Amar - I think your comment was incomplete.