Datazen first client test!

I got to use Datazen for the first time in anger with a client this week, and my experience was a bit of a mixed bag. There are elements of it which are neat but a fair few niggles.

Things to love

It’s pretty. The simple visualisations mean it is easy to create a nice looking, uncluttered dashboard with minimal fuss and tweaking. The responsive design means cross device functionality is pretty good and looks nice. It’s also quick to build and change content.

Quick learning tips

First up, let’s get some practical learnings shared:

  1. Use views or stored procs behind your data if hitting a SQL Source. Datazen has no query editor (just a big text box) and doesn’t always handle parameters gracefully. Plus debugging is a pain as error massages are often less than helpful (e.g. “Data Preview Failed”)
  2. Set report friendly field names in you query as you can’t always manage them in designer – sometimes you can, sometimes you can’t.
  3. Selecting the ‘All’ option on a Selection List Navigator sends back ” (empty string) as the parameter value to the query, so handle that rather than NULL.

Now, some major drawbacks:

  1. Consistency of cross platform behaviour is not great. I found some drillthoughs didn’t work on iOS or Android. Windows 8 seems to be the go to client. It’s not fatal but for fussy clients it’s a hard sell that this cross platform tool doesn’t work as expected.
  2. The Win 7 Publisher app is unstable, buggy and seems to have features missing – such as proper configuration for report drillthrough. It’s only been around a few weeks so it’s forgivable but if you have to use it seriously, make sure you have a Win 8 client somewhere to do your development work on.
  3. The charting is actually quite limited. There’s no stacked bar, for example. Line charts can only be by time. Labeling and colours are pretty hard to control, often rendering components useless. A great example is the category chart (bar chart) – the renderer will sometimes decide not to display category labels – which then means you just have a nice picture of some bars with no context as to what each one is, like this:
Could be cat population by state for all I know
Could be cat population by state for all I know

Finally some irritations:

These are some of the things that got annoying as I used the product – not an exhaustive list – and small enough I’d expect them to be fixed relatively soon.

  1. You cannot update columns on a grid component if the underlying column names change – you have to rebuild component (a small task but annoying during development)
  2. You cannot set the Low/Neutral/High ranges for gauge columns on indicator grids so they match settings for other gauges
  3. You cannot align numbers – and they are aligned left which is not good dataviz practice
  4. There is no handling for outliers on heatmaps so one extreme value will screw your shading
  5. You can’t cascade drillthrough to a level below
  6. The data preview after creating a data view has no Scroll bar so if there’s a lot of fields you can’t see them
  7. There are maps provided but you have to work out how they are keyed yourself so you can connect your data (to be addressed in a future post)
  8. You can’t “oversize” the canvas so phone users can scroll down.
  9. Nobody’s using it – or at least talking about it – so help is hard to find.

A lot of irritation boils down to “I want to set that but I can’t”. This I’m sure is partly design, partly product maturity.

My takeaway.

After a week with the product I get a real sense that it’s not even a v1 product yet. Maybe v0.9. There’s lots of niggles in the product – and not just at the back end where users can’t see them. I could tolerate the back end weaknesses if the end user experience was great, but there’s holes there. Still, there’s a lot of good that can be done. It’ll be interesting to see how it fares given PowerBI has such a huge feature overlap.

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The Dangers of the Dashboard

On your shiny dashboard, you have some great traffic lights – green is good, amber is ok and red is bad. If it’s green you can be happy you are performing well, and let that part of that business alone because there’s some red warning lights and they need your attention now – before the boss comes down on you like a ton of bricks – or you miss your bonus. Or maybe with a little effort you can nudge an amber to green and things improve for you.

Can a Green KPI be a bad thing?

A green KPI can easily be a missed opportunity. Maybe sales are up in a sector, and there’s an opportunity for growth brewing – but no action is taken, because the KPI is green and there’s distracting red traffic lights urging action in somewhere else. The beauty of traffic light KPI’s is that they show stats in a simple, easy to grasp format – but the strength of their simplicity is also a weakness.

The traffic light KPI exploits an aspect of human nature – that we react to warning signals – and so the red light is there to urge people to act. The problem is because red pushes us to act, and green tells us all is well, we don’t think to act on a green KPI. This leads to a situation where if we don’t understand our KPI’s and what drives them we can make poor decisions. What is the point of acting on a red KPI because sales are down $20k in one sector if not acting on the sector with the green KPI means we miss out on a $100k market?

Can a Red KPI be a good thing?

The short answer to this is – of course – no. It means you are missing your targets and something needs to be done. However what is the value of a KPI that is always red? To give a personal example, many moons ago I was a call centre monkey (yup, still a simian). We had a call waiting board that beeped loudly and flashed red every time a call had been on the line over 5 minutes. Due to chronic understaffing, the only time that board didn’t beep was when it was switched off at the end of the day. So we had a red KPI all the time – it served no purpose at all.

The lesson to be learned from that example is that unless your KPI is defined with reasonable parameters – not an arbitrary value – it won’t tell you anything useful. If our board had beeped when the waiting time went over 15 minutes, maybe it would have spurred us on as a reminder we were getting behind. But a constant warning is no warning at all.

So should I just set all my KPI’s to Amber?

The implication of the above could imply that the KPI is useless – but like any tool, it has to be fit for purpose, and used well. There’s two points I hope you can take away from this:

  • See Green KPI’s make as a chance to do better and just as worthy of review as the red lights
  • Make sure your KPI’s are reviewed so they really are providing useful assessments of performance upon which you can act

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