February 7, 2000
IT departments search for the best ways to adapt the tools to business users' needs
By Laura Chabrow
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Visualization can enhance desktop data analysis in a variety of ways. Graphical images are excellent at highlighting data's significant features: Where is the greatest or smallest profit margin? How does this month's revenue compare with last month's? Where are employees with specific skills located?
Some products send visual warnings when a predetermined threshold is reached, such as inventory dropping too low, so immediate action can be taken. Many let users interact with the data they see on their screens, so that with one click of the mouse, users can drill down to greater levels of detail. Increasingly, the tools can work on the Web, facilitating access by users in remote locations.
One such solution is a portfolio-analysis application created by Deutsche Bank Global Institutional Services using Seagate Software Inc.'s Crystal Reports. Portfolio managers, both internally and at the bank's institutional customers worldwide, use the tool to analyze their investments from their desktops. The application's three side-by-side pie charts summarize the manager's total investments by country, industry (such as technology or banking), and currency, showing at a glance the areas of heaviest investment.
By clicking on any of the pie slices, users can drill down quickly to the desired details. A click on the technology industry, for example, redisplays all three pie charts, summarizing only technology investments by country, industry sector (hardware, software, Internet provider, etc.), and currency. If users then click on a country for details of technology investments in that region, details are displayed in tabular form and include companies held, shares, and market value. Previously, users could only get such in-depth data by pulling selected information from tabular paper reports or the bank's homegrown client-server applications, which lacked graphical and drill-down capabilities.
Deutsche Bank is also taking advantage of Crystal Reports 7's new geographical feature, which reflects data in map format. The bank is developing an asset-tracking application in which regional maps are color-coded to show the relative value of holdings in each country. A portfolio manager can click on a country to see a list of the underlying assets.
Deutsche Bank intentionally keeps its visualization applications straightforward and functional. "We have to make sure it's intuitive enough so that we don't have to have a lot of support, because it's distributed over the Web," says Paul Urban, VP of Internet and enterprise reporting, in New York, adding that Deutsche Bank is pleased with its investment. Graphical business applications can be created quickly with Crystal Reports, and Urban says he's never seen a case in which his group couldn't create a report the way they wanted it. Also, Crystal Reports is used widely enough in general that it's easy to find people with the technical expertise to use it.
More important than that expertise, however, is an understanding of what makes an online report a productive tool--what will give users the greatest insight into the data they receive and help them do their jobs better. Software makers "have to know enough about the user to know what gives them the value," Urban says. The bank uses business analysts who are familiar with Crystal Reports to design graphical business applications. The analysts work closely with the business users to understand their needs, then design the applications accordingly.
The resulting tools must be able to represent data graphically in a way that people will accept in place of the conventional text formats they're used to, says Alexander Linden, a senior analyst at Gartner Group. He's seen numerous examples of business applications that were created with a clear understanding of the business needs and rolled out with the appropriate training, yet failed to gain broad acceptance among their users.
Linden cites one such case: an application created by the research and development department of a credit-card company with input from its intended users in the marketing division. The tool was intended to highlight the customer characteristics and marketing efforts that combined to yield the highest profitability for the company. Customers with similar characteristics--such as age, sex, and income--were grouped and shown as a single circle. Arcs emanated from the circle, each representing a marketing strategy, such as promotion to gold-member status, solicitation for a specific product, or presentation of a gift certificate. The arcs were labeled to indicate what they represented and color-coded according to levels of profitability. A single screen showed multiple arc-capped circles, so the effects of marketing strategies on different customer groups could be compared.
Sound confusing? It was--and the application didn't catch on because most users weren't willing to accept the information in that format. "It didn't get into the user's brain," Linden says. "Sometimes there is just such a steep learning curve that users won't want to go down it."
Simple, familiar graphical images are often the most easily adopted by business users. Artisan Entertainment Inc. in Santa Monica, Calif., uses bar and line charts that show sales over a period of time to enhance traditional text sales and special promotions reports for its president and marketing managers. "If you're an executive being presented with reams of data, it helps to get information in a form where you can readily see the trends that are occurring," CIO Leo Collins says. Graphs deliver the big picture.
Illustration by Fredrix.com
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