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Marketing IT In-House: Should BI Be Fun?

Trying to make BI fun is risky business. You may be able to do it, but you should aim to enhance user experience by making the BI app as useful as possible.

By Max T. Russell

Recent advances in BI visualization are wonderful. Some technologists have suggested that fun, engaging gaming principles could be designed into visualizations to increase user adoption. The concept may deserve discussion, but your in-house customers and prospects don't need you to make their work fun. They need you to supply business solutions.

If you can make BI more enjoyable, that's great. Just be careful how you try to do that or you could end up being a problem instead of a solution. In this article, I'll explain some of the practical psychology of keeping users interested in BI, particularly using visualizations.

Visual Learners

People often say, "I'm a visual learner." Educators talk about the "visual learner" when they don't understand how to build well-rounded support into learning environments.

Vision is critical to optimal learning, and everyone with eyesight is a visual learner. Furthermore, as a Barcelona professor emphasized to his students (including me) years ago, "Even blind people want to see." Some blind people say this is true as long as they are enabled to see clearly. They explain that fuzzy vision is confusing, sometimes worse than blindness.

It is a natural fact: humans are intended to see, and they want to see clearly.

BI visualization solutions should not be discussed as special tools that can benefit visual learners. Visuals can greatly benefit all of us. Market your visuals as a way to round out each and every user's experience, bringing fuzzy data into clear view.

Too Much Excitement about Color

I know a man who taught hundreds of people to draw and paint in color. They regularly won awards for their art. At lunch one day, he told his employer and me that he was color blind! The employer said, "Oh, my. I try to think of all the questions to ask when I'm interviewing somebody. I never would've thought of that one."

The instructor also taught people to draw in black and white (and shades of black), and their drawings won just as many awards as the color drawings and paintings.

I saw the entries. The black-and-whites were often much more appealing than the color pieces. Time and again the colorblind instructor's students swept competitions, and color was not the reason. The artwork was simply outstanding.

I recently visited a traveling exhibition of marvelous, black and white photos at a museum. When I left that exhibit and wandered into a room of color paintings, I didn't notice that I had gone from black and white to color! I only realized it at this very moment of writing.

My point: don't put the wrong emphasis on color. Dramatic stimuli can lose their value the same way a new car does when you buy it and drive it off the lot. A properly designed black-and-white display could be more appealing than a colorful one. The trick is in how the user's mind is guided and exercised. After all, to a colorblind person, color is always missing.

Use color or black and white in two ways for visual designs: (1) as a form of non-distracting pleasure and (2) as a way to easily distinguish pieces of information and areas of the display.

Ignore vendor claims about research showing that colors have specific impacts on learning and memory. Establishing those claims would require knowing variables such as the users' knowledge, preferences, job skills, technology experience, and reasons for using the visual. You won't live long enough to cover those bases.

Color is a secondary issue that should serve your customers' primary needs.

Fun vs. Interest

Should your BI team want to design gaming principles into data visualizations to make them more interesting to users? Does your budget allow enough time and money to discover whether games and work can blend in a predictably positive way for your users?

To answer these questions, let's consider several facts about work and play.

Fun is subjective. My kids and their spouses play a number of board games that my wife thinks are fun. She likes any game she can win, and she often wins at these. I've tried to enjoy them but they either take too long to learn or I just don't like them.

My son-in-law is surprised at my reaction. You must remember that fun is defined by your customers -- not by IT or a vendor.

Workers go to work to work. Few people go to work expecting to play. Great visuals make information easy to find, separate, explore, think about, experiment with, and look at without distraction. Imagine how happy your users would be if you gave them visuals that supported their information needs.

If workers don't expect to have fun, you should think twice before trying to make their work fun. Attempts to do so can interfere with business, as I will show in a few moments.

Interest is better. We can distinguish between fun and interest by defining fun as a more superficial form of enjoyment. Fun can stay at the sensory level, while interest is intellectual -- a desire to know more about something. By these definitions, interest is motivation and more relevant to the goals of the enterprise.

Of course, something can be interesting and fun at the same time, but I have found that people usually say they're having fun when they are interested. Interest gives you "two for the price of one."

A BI visualization that sparks deeper interest in data will become a marketing tool that makes your customers' work more interesting and reminds them over and over that BI is a relevant addition to their work day.

There are different kinds of games. Now let's look at three types of games and consider whether games and work can mix in a predictably positive way.

People bring different expectations to different kinds of games. When they play recreational games, they have higher expectations. They expect to have a good time. That's the priority.

Learning games and work games are different from recreational games in an important way. As with work, people do not automatically expect to have a good time when they are learning.

When I design learning games, I know that people will appreciate whatever fun and interest they find in the learning experience. Enjoyment is almost considered extra, no matter how many times I design it into the same person's experience.

A work game is like a learning game but also different from it. Workers appreciate enjoyment during the work day, but serious employees are aware of responsibilities to their team and the enterprise. They need to maintain a work flow. They may not be in the mood for fun, and they certainly are not expecting it.

The evening shift manager at a metal fabrication plant announced that the first two hours of one Friday evening would be set aside for an employee appreciation meal. The workers said they wouldn't be hungry at that time. The manager said it would be fun and there would be surprises. The workers said they wanted to meet their production goals. The manager said the event would help build the team. The workers said their teams were fine and they didn't come to work to deepen their friendships.

The event was cancelled and everyone was happy to get their work done.

A large medical facility scheduled an hour of entertainment and refreshments in the middle of the first shift. In one contest, two employees at a time put petroleum jelly on their noses, ran to a basket 20 feet away, dipped their noses into it, and ran back to the start line with a cotton ball stuck on their noses.

Most attendees enjoyed the break, but the women were concerned about smearing their makeup, and others worked through the break because they thought their work was more interesting than the "fun" they avoided. What would you have done?

Give Users What They Need

Making other people's work day more enjoyable is a noble thing, and data visualizations can be thrilling at first. You may be able to make them fun and interesting at the same time. You may find a way to make them feel like a game.

Remember, however, employees just want to get their work done and to get it done right. Give them BI visuals that meet their real needs and they'll be back for more.

Max T. Russell invites your suggestions about future article topics. As owner of Max and Max Communications, he works behind the scenes to promote individuals and projects in a variety of industries. He and his identical twin, Max S., are heavy technology users who have been discussing and dissecting the challenges of IT in the workplace for the past 19 years. You can contact the author at

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