Written by Donald Farmer

Too often, we base Business Intelligence today on a simple premise: that people are logical decision-makers. In this light, common BI practices promise that the right data, in the right format, at the right time, will help you toward better outcomes. However, as human beings, we just don’t work that way. What influences your knowledge workers’ outcomes? It’s not just the right data; it’s also the surroundings they work in, and their feelings as they decide.

You may be thinking we can’t do much to change the mind-set of our decision-makers. All we can do is provide that best data in the best format and make sure our visualizations and results are as precise as possible. Can we really control anything else? In fact, I do believe we can help to give users a more complete understanding of the data and motivations behind their choices.

We are all familiar with one handy interaction that is radically different from traditional approaches to data: the simple, but potent, interface of the internet search engine. However, the use of search can seem counter-intuitive for a BI practitioner, because searches often return data points by the thousand and we know from experience how many prove less than useful. Yet, even though they deliver a near-overwhelming flood of results, search engines have a great advantage for the new and advanced user alike. They allow for browsing, or what Peter Pirolli has called “Information Foraging.”

Pirolli’s theory sees us foraging for information in a very similar way to animals hunting for food. We receive a great deal from the information environment, browsing through cues, or “information scent,” for the pieces we want. We may return more data with less structure – but enhanced by good browsing tools giving cues to content and relevance – and still provide better insights than presenting a small, focused, result set. Hunting and foraging represent basic human skills that help us to navigate the data surrounding us. You can get better results and better information through browsing and foraging compared to our accustomed structured queries.

We should also appreciate that the touch interface is a significant improvement to browsing. Touch interfaces feel satisfyingly intuitive. Everyone can understand the simplicity: using a fingertip to navigate and act. When applied to business, the possibilities seem endless. Learning from my own work in the field with customers, I know they happily spend more time navigating and exploring in a program when using a touch application, compared to a conventional desktop interface. We often call the touch interface of the tablet a relaxed “lean-back experience” compared to the more directed “lean forward” world of the desktop. More time spent foraging the data means more discoveries and insights, precisely because users are able to casually browse in a more natural setting. Furthermore, the touch experience is inherently exploratory. With a new tablet app, the first thing you are likely to try is exploring the interface and seeing what artifacts onscreen respond to touch, and which features reveal new information.

I believe Business Intelligence as a practice should not first and foremost aim to narrow the data space to a restricted set of predetermined answers, delivered in response to a well-defined query. If you can formulate that query well enough, then probably you have mostly found your way to the answer already. The exploratory foraging experience, what I often call the discovery experience, enables users to find things they didn’t even know they were looking for. Browsing opens up a world of information. As BI practitioners, that’s what we need to strive for. It’s not just about the data – it’s about the truly important insights we can uncover when our users are enabled with tools that support and expand our instincts.

Donald Farmer is a featured speaker at CGE’s Leadership Summit on November 18 in Ottawa. He is Qlik’s Vice President of Innovation and Design and has over twenty years’ experience in analytics and data management. In that time he has worked as a consultant, in startups and as a leader of Microsoft’s BI product teams. He’s an established and sought-after speaker in the sphere of business intelligence, data integration and data management, in addition to maintaining an active blog and authoring several books.