External-Facing BI Apps: Why Prompts Make or Break the User Experience

Use of Prompts in external-facing BI apps
AvatarJanuary 6, 2015

Using a business intelligence (BI) application with an unfriendly interface is like looking for a book in an uncategorized library: you might eventually find what you need, but the experience will be arduous and time-consuming. This is especially the case with external-facing BI apps. Created for outside audiences like customers, partners, and suppliers, external-facing BI apps require an easy and inviting user interface — and are difficult for many developers to pull off.

In my last post, the first in a series on external-facing BI apps, I talked about some of the development challenges that come with designing apps for broad, non-employee-based audiences. Today, I’d like to explore what our BI development team at InfoCepts considers critical to the external users’ experience: prompts.


What are prompts?

Prompts enable end users to narrow and focus their analysis on the facts and data they need, instead of spinning their wheels sorting through irrelevant information. Prompts play a crucial role in any BI app or dashboard, particularly those used by broad, external audiences. With well-designed prompts, users can access and utilize necessary hierarchies, levels, and dimensions of the data sets — and find what they’re looking for in a few clicks.

In many ways, having an effective, user-friendly, and interactive prompting system is essential — and becomes mandatory when your BI system is used by thousands of users untrained or unfamiliar with the typical BI user experience.


Why do default prompting systems fall short of their potential?

Most of the default prompting systems in BI tools are ripe with limitations. Often, they lack flexibility and come across as rigid and rough to the end user. Common problems with default prompt implementations include:

  • A bare and basic UI layout that confuses users with an illogical flow.
  • A lack of interactive features that today’s users expect, from quick search to prompt options like auto suggestions, selection validity, prompts driving prompts, storing favorites, quick help, and quick selection summary.
  • Inadequate performance that makes re-prompting or reselecting options a painful experience for users to get the desired result.
  • An inability to integrate business-driven prompting and handle the unique needs of individual businesses. For example, if a user selects the first option on a prompt (such as “mobile devices”), then a business rule is applied to determine and populate the next round of prompt options (“tablet,” “smartphone,” “smartwatch,” “all of the above”). Without the ability to customize business rules, companies are limited in the goals they can accomplish with the app.


What is the key to better prompt design?

Default BI tool prompting poses limitations beyond what I describe above, all of which detracts from the user experience and makes the BI application inappropriate for large-scale user adoption. Fortunately, these challenges can be addressed in a couple of ways:

  • Option 1
    Developers can create custom prompt pages that implement a company’s unique business rules for controlling the behavior of the prompt — and, in turn, entice users to interact and take action in strategic ways. Consider using advanced scripting (ExtJs, jQuery, and AJAX) to create highly interactive features. And for further performance improvement and complete control over the queries to fetch prompts data, adopt the incremental or lazy load techniques.
    These custom prompts can be integrated with your BI tools to provide a seamless user experience. In addition, a reusable custom prompting framework can be developed to reduce your development efforts.
  • Option 2
    Though less effective and far more restrictive, another option is to customize the default prompts page instead of building custom prompts from scratch. Just know ahead of time that you’ll only be able to add a few basic features, such as changing the fonts and default colors. Use the API or SDK provided by the BI tool to create these customizations, but understand that this can be a time-consuming task with limited results.

The prompting system your external-facing BI app utilizes can make or break the app’s effectiveness. The best option, by far, is to create custom prompts, but doing so takes understanding the behavior of prompts; knowing how to integrate prompts seamlessly into the BI app; fully grasping the specific business rules and objectives of the app owner; and understanding what users expect and how they’ll interact.

At InfoCepts, our team of experts has broad experience creating custom BI apps for many industry leaders. Learn more about our approach, and stay tuned for our next post about BI external-facing apps, which looks at navigation.