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Keep it simple: Less is more when presenting real-time BI

“People always ask for more than they can use, and more than they need. Less is more.”

Thanksgiving is around the corner, so today’s brief missive is devoted to the eyes-are-bigger-than-the-stomach syndrome — in this case with regard to real-time business intelligence (BI).

Analyst Roy Schulte, the Gartner Inc. expert quoted above, was talking about the mistakes to be avoided when presenting operational BI. (Let’s ignore for now the semantic debate about whether real-time BI and operational BI are one and the same.) The point he was making is that when it comes to the intelligence aimed at decision making in the moment, both digital providers and digital users err on the side of too much. Our stomach for information is bigger than our capacity to process it.

The result is that the pertinent data is obscured and people are overwhelmed with information they thought they needed to help them work — but don’t. Less is more.

Schulte offered the advice at a session at the recent Gartner Sympoisum/ITxpo show. Here are three pointers (heavily paraphrased from the talk) that will improve operational BI.

Don’t junk it up with pictures. Nonessential clip art, logos and decorations actually slow down decision making. Unless you’re a genius at accessorizing — and maybe even if you are — don’t go there. The 3-D graphics that are all the rage in BI reports? Also a no-no. They can obscure the attributes you are trying to show.

Stop with the metrics already! People always want more metrics than they can use. If users ask for a bunch of metrics, it’s hard not to oblige and keep your job. But you can keep to your less is more rule by showing users the pertinent metrics, and making the other metrics optional behind a click-on icon, Schulte says. “Most times, after a couple of weeks people find they are not using that additional information.” (How to separate the wheat from the chaff on metrics is a topic for another story.)

Beware of alert fatigue. Alert clutter is just as counterproductive as information clutter.

The pointers, as I mentioned, came in Schulte’s talk about mistakes that even the pros make in operational BI. But these presentation rules spill over to all sorts of applications. The bigger message for CIOs — and one that I’ve been hearing at conferences and from IT people in the trenches — is the need to focus on people-centric design. If time is money, success will depend on designing applications and platforms that quickly adapt to and reflect how people think and work. And, just to make things more complicated, IT also needs to make these people-centric applications and platforms adaptable to a ton of devices. Less is more. And more is needed.

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