This is a followup to a good article by Timo Elliott on making information understandable. It underlines a good point – good information is useless unless it is presented in a way the users can understand. I always try and build any reports with the philosophy; “How do I make it so the most number illiterate recipient can grasp what this report is showing?” – working for a bunch of Lawyers in one job really honed this mode of thinking!
Why Bus Timetables are a great example of BI
For a comparable transport analogy (and general moan), Sydney has terrible bus information. At most stops is a sheet of A4 (if you’re lucky) with bus numbers and times in order of time. No maps. No explanation of what bus number goes where. Unless you know in advance which bus you need, this data is useless. It’s not a surprise I never bother getting the bus – I can’t hop on one because I have no idea when a useful one is coming, and if one does come, whether its route is good for me. Compared to London with its simple route maps and timetables ordered by route and time, I hopped on the bus regularly, because if I passed a bus stop in a strange part of town I could rapidly figure out if it was a good option.
What question makes the difference between a Report and Information?
A common failure point for BI is that too much emphasis has been put on the tools, and getting data in shape – so you have a fantasic warehouse and toolset to read it – but users who aren’t “educated” enough to use it, because there seems to be the mindset among developers that BI systems are just that – systems. Training is usually functional – “how to access Report B, how to rerun the Data” – not practical – “How does Report B give me the ability to make better decisions”? There is a gap in expectations – the developers assume management know what they are asking for. Managers assume what they get will get the answers from the reports. No-one in the equation is brave enough to pipe up and ask: “Do you know what you really want? Because I don’t think this will help.”
A good consultant should continually be asking this question of their clients – “How is what we are building helping you make better decisions?“