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BI Futures: From Mobile-First to Multi-Screen

Is the power of a seamless "multi-screen" BI experience coming to devices near you?

Many business intelligence (BI) vendors now employ a "mobile-first" development strategy.

In other words, they're prioritizing design and development for mobile platforms, in some cases introducing features and capabilities that play to the strengths of the mobile experience. Vendors that adopt this strategy are usually careful to position mobile-first as part of a larger effort to deliver user experiences (UX) they say are "optimized" for both the desktop and the mobile worlds.

This is good, so far as it goes, concedes Donald Farmer, vice president of innovation and design with Qlik Inc. The bad, Farmer argues, is that even this larger sense of "mobile-first" is predicated on the idea of distinct or discrete experiences -- i.e., a desktop experience distinct from a mobile experience.

The basis for this distinction is collapsing, however, according to Farmer: people no longer use and interact with their devices in terms of discrete "desktop" or "mobile" experiences -- they're moving or transitioning between and among different device experiences all the time.

"It's not just about how we use those devices, but how the experiences flow across those devices. How do you move from your laptop to your phone? Why do you move from your laptop to your phone? How and why do you use all of your devices in the course of your daily work?

"That's something people haven't looked at. There's a ton of research out there, and almost every BI company has announced a mobile strategy, but nobody's talking about this."

Well, almost nobody. Farmer is spearheading an effort at Qlik to design what he calls a fluid "multi-screen" experience. By this he means an experience in which a person is able to transition -- smoothly and without much preparation or distraction -- from one "screen" to another.

As they do so, their experience will change accordingly. That Qlik Sense scatterplot that looked so good on the big 4K display in the boardroom? The one with 1,000 data points? View it on a tablet or phone and it's unintelligible. Multi-screen technology must be smart enough to rescale it, and, if necessary to re-present it using a completely different visualization technique, Farmer notes.

Like mobile-first, the goal of multi-screen is to present information in a format that's appropriate to the form factor of the specific device a person is using. Multi-screen is more ambitious, however, in that it explicitly addresses the phenomenon of transition, of what happens when a person puts aside her laptop and starts working on her tablet. Why, Farmer asks, did she do that? There's usually a reason, be it logistical (the transition from sitting in a chair in an office or airport lounge to reclining on a sofa or airplane seat) or situational -- an interruption, an idea or insight, or something similar.

In any case, when a marketing manager closes her laptop and hurries to a meeting, she should be able to resume what she was doing -- e.g., interacting with a visualization -- on her phone or tablet. This experience should be seamless. She shouldn't have to save what she was doing to a server or to cloud storage. In point of fact, she shouldn't even have to think about what she's doing.

"What you're really looking for is getting away from this idea of these experiences being discrete. Think of them instead as being a continuum of experiences, a continuous flow of experiences," he says, noting that how people interact with and consume information -- to say nothing of how people expect to interact with and consume information -- has changed drastically in just the last 10 years.

Farmer cites the example of a major UK bank that, ten years ago, was primarily concerned with delivering charts, reports, dashboards, and other analytics to a comparatively limited subset of potential consumers: e.g., traders, managers, directors, and executives.

A decade on, he observes, this same bank has a very different set of priorities.

"The challenge today is how do I show the same [kinds of information] … for example, to someone in HR -- someone who isn't concerned with risk exposure but with how different traders are performing," he explains. "Another huge difference is that I don't just expect to show this stuff to her in a boardroom or conference room, but in the back of a taxi on the way to the airport, or while queuing for [airport] security. In both cases, whether I'm in the boardroom or the back of the taxi, the data has to be consistent, but [the way it's presented] has to conform to the experience."

BI Behind the Curve?

BI vendors still don't get this, Farmer argues. Instead of designing for how people expect to interact with and consume information, what they're actually doing is designing for a model in which information is presented and consumed in the context of discrete, mostly formalized, experiences: in an office environment, in a conference or boardroom, in a sales presentation -- or (among the more progressive and imaginative vendors) in some notional "off-site" scenario.

The BI industry hasn't given much thought to how it's going to meaningfully integrate experiences across different devices, Farmer claims. What's more, it hasn't even begun to come to grips with the problem of how to design and deliver a holistic multi-screen experience that's less formalized than it is business-casual, if only because people are doing it all of the time.

There's a very good reason for this. Multi-screen must be tolerant of the ways in which people move (casually, so to speak) from laptop to phone to tablet -- and back again. Delivering a seamless multi-screen experience is an incredibly hard technological problem. A lot has to happen in the background to make all of that seamlessness a reality. Qlik is just starting to tackle this problem in its own design; at this point, its efforts with Qlik Sense have borne modest fruit. More recently, Qlik also devoted the inaugural issue of its quarterly Innovation and Design Research Digest to the challenge (and opportunity) of accommodating the multi-screen experience.

"It's not just a question of scaling and laying out for the environment, it's an understanding of how our interaction with data changes with each environment. That problem is an order of magnitude more difficult from just handling the scaling of a visualization," he argues. "[Multi-screen] also entails different expectations of the designer to what is designed. Traditionally, a designer designs a 'just-so' visualization: 'This is what I've found, and in my visualization I'm explaining exactly what I've found to you.' But what happens when you look at that in a different format? It's no longer just-so."

It's in this respect, Farmer claims, that Qlik has a leg up on its competitors.

"We're probably the only people actually thinking about [multi-screen] and designing with it in mind," he says. "Other companies are designing for each experience. How often do you hear a company talking about their desktop strategy, but everybody is talking about their mobile strategies. It's very revealing because it tells you that they think about this in terms of atomic, discrete experiences."

One reason BI software vendors are so gung-ho about mobile-first is that their customers are no less agog over mobility. This doesn't mean businesses -- or, more precisely, enterprise IT organizations -- are hip to the transformative potential of mobility and multi-screen, however.

In a sense, Farmer argues, this is because enterprise IT thinks of mobility as another in a never-ending series of problems to be "solved." So long as IT has a mobility "solution" of one kind or another, it's satisfied. "In IT departments, the traditional way of thinking is 'I need to deploy a mobile experience,' or 'I need to make BI available for mobile [devices].' This conceive [of mobility] as this kind of checklist action item," he indicates. "We're suggesting that maybe there's a way of doing this … that's informed by an understanding of how people actually use BI -- not just in a mobile context, not just in a desktop context but in a mobile-and-desktop-and-laptop-and-tablet context."

At some point, Farmer argues, business people are going to demand the same kind of experience from BI and other kinds of enterprise software that they're getting from hybrid cloud apps such as Microsoft's Office 365 or Adobe's Creative Suite.

"How can we make it so they can easily move between experiences? For example, somebody gets an alert on their mobile device that something has gone wrong -- a KPI has suddenly gone down, their sales are not on target. Do they follow up on their phone and drill into it? Depending on context, on where they are, and what they're doing, they might have to. Situation permitting, they'd probably want to move from their phone to their laptop," he concludes. "The idea is to make that experience, whether it's drilling down on their phone or tablet or moving [from phone or tablet] to their laptop, as easy and as natural as possible."

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