External-Facing BI Apps: Designing with Customers and Partners in Mind

Designing of external-facing BI apps
AvatarDecember 9, 2014

“Externalizing BI will increasingly be an expected part of most customer and partner relationships. If I am a customer or partner of your organization, it is expected that your organization will provide me with certain information about my interactions with your firm.”

 – Kurt Schlegel, “New Business Value: Turning BI from a Cost Center into a Revenue Generator,” Gartner Business Intelligence Summit 2010


Business intelligence (BI) dashboards and apps have, for years, helped company leaders utilize data to make better decisions. It’s only recently, however, that BI apps have moved beyond an internal-facing audience to help customers and business partners access and apply data in meaningful ways.


Given the relatively new and evolving focus on external audiences in BI, developers and companies alike are scrambling to figure out how to create and implement these apps — and for what purpose. In many ways, external-facing BI app development is like the Wild West, where rules and laws are not yet written, and lines on maps not yet drawn.


What’s driving the outward focus, and what opportunities do external-facing BI apps bring to companies and consumers alike? What challenges do developers face, and what solutions or “best practices” help? This blog post is the first in a series designed to answer these and other questions about external-facing BI, and to share what we’ve learned at InfoCepts developing these apps for major companies across a range of industries.


In this first post, we look at how these apps differ from conventional BI systems — and the challenges those differences bring. We also share how external-facing apps can be used by companies. As we progress through the series, we explore a number of essential design and development elements, from prompts and exporting capabilities to interactive features like notifications and alerts.


A natural progression

Over the past few decades, business intelligence has evolved from finance-oriented BI dashboards to applications used by companies and teams in sales and marketing, human resources, manufacturing, healthcare, and countless other departments and industries — all for internal purposes. As the amount of data generated continues to grow, and as technology evolves, opportunities now exist to make the data accessible and useful for external audiences like customers, partners, and suppliers. We call this the “democratization of data,” and it’s happening now as products like the Fitbit enter the market and allow individuals to track and measure their own health-related data; as Netflix and Amazon make personalized recommendations to customers based on browsing and purchase histories; as retailers like PetSmart and Staples collect consumer behavior and preferences that can be reported back to manufacturers and distributors as actionable data; and as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn sell users’ personal information to third-party companies and partners.

Essentially, companies are realizing that they have a lot of valuable data at their disposal, so the trick is to figure out how to package and sell the data and make it accessible and useful for outside audiences, whether those audiences are customers or distribution partners. There’s enormous opportunity here, but it’s a new field and requires a new approach.


Broader user base, new challenges

This new kind of BI differs in many ways from more conventional BI. When we develop a conventional BI app or dashboard for a company, we’re creating a solution for an internal team with specific needs and skill sets. We can design the app to meet those specifications — and train the team to use the app effectively. External-facing BI apps, on the other hand, have much broader target audiences, and it’s impossible to know what level of technology and analytical skills the users will bring to the interactive experience. Since we don’t have access to the audience and can’t train them, we have to develop a user experience that is smooth and unintimidating.

Users of internal BI apps tend to understand BI tools, but we can’t make that same assumption with the users of external-facing apps. With the rise of mobile and web-based apps and portals, the majority of external users are accustomed to highly interactive experiences, fast performance, and one-click actions. Developers need to meet these expectations to make BI apps for external audiences successful.


More about product development

At their core, external-facing BI apps do what apps for internal audiences do: help users gather and make sense of data, and use that data to make decisions, gain insights, or take action. With external-facing apps, however, the app itself is a product sold by the company, instead of a system used by the company, and the developer needs to approach it as such. This requires a shift in the developer’s mindset: the app no longer serves internal audiences for the purpose of improving how a company operates. In most cases, the app is a product for sale to a partner, supplier, customer, or even the general public.


Enormous potential

Companies are beginning to take advantage of the huge data pools they’ve acquired — and use them to generate revenue. How that happens varies widely. At InfoCepts, among the external-facing apps we’ve created are a product that helps music fans access detailed analyses of artists, albums, single songs, airplay, and what’s being talked about across social media channels; a product that enables companies to analyze data from real-time online engagements with their customers; and other products that streamline and simplify how companies access and analyze vast amounts of consumer data and client demographics.

In all of these cases, the end users are the consumers, customers, suppliers, or business partners of our clients, and they range from the management teams of major corporations to the music fan searching for songs on a Saturday night. This broad audience requires a totally different user experience design tied closely to human factors. It also requires tighter security, a higher level of interactive visualization, and the necessary piloting that comes with the rollout of any technology-based product.

As we progress through this blog series, we’ll explore these specific development requirements and share some of our approach to creating BI apps for customers and partners. So stay tuned, and read our case study about a BI solution we created for a leading provider of consumer analytics.