Using Search to Simplify Business Intelligence

Sujit KaneJune 3, 2016

By its nature, business intelligence (BI) reporting is sold as the one-stop solution to simplify access to complex business metrics and facilitate decision making. While a visually clean MicroStrategy or Tableau dashboard may be attractive at first glance, it could involve wrestling with underlying data to make it look sleek and perform faster. These behind-the-scenes complexities can unintentionally spill over into the user interface/user experience (UI/UX), negatively impacting an otherwise useful solution.

 

The complexity has several sources, including:

  • Data with cryptic labels and/or different semantic meanings that are employed by old online transaction processing (OLTP) applications
  • Myriad menu options to provide access to various data sources and reports, which may be intimidating for users unfamiliar with complex web-based/desktop data processing tools
  • Difficult overall workflows, including cumbersome steps in reaching up to the dashboard

We have seen many BI solutions, some really insightful, fall by the wayside or become the object of ridicule because influential end users found them difficult to use. So how do we simplify the search results that arise from complex underlying data? Or streamline the tedious steps in navigating the myriad menus in a complex web application? Or ease the transition from existing business terminologies to new naming conventions for a newly created data warehouse?

 

We recently faced these challenges when a life sciences client wanted to create a simple interface for end users while also ensuring the ability to access their most complex BI reports. Search engines were a perfect solution to this problem.

 

Search engine technology has some distinct advantages compared to using the standard relational database management system (RDBMS)-based data warehouses. The data in RDBMS are bound by strong data type definitions and an inviolable table structure. A search engine is designed to run across data types and multiple fields to bring back results that can be easily related to specific data points, assuming the user is familiar with how data points relate to each other.

 

We have a number of options, depending on which flavor of search engine we wish to use. The newer tools also include powerful, appliance-based software like ThoughtSpot, Google, or simple open-source solutions, such as Solr, Elastic Search, and Sphinx. Looking at this client’s requirements, we opted for Sphinx based on the presence of structured data as input.

 

The solution arranges search results by relevance to users’ subject areas. For example, when searching for subsidiaries, a finance department user will find the list of reports from the finance domain at top, whereas an HR department user will always see the HR reports at top of search results.

 

The BI tool also provides the ability to perform just enough filtering and aggregation to allow for expression-based searches. Such a search interface opens immense possibilities for implementing complex search situations that hide complexities behind the efficient cloak of a capable search engine.

 

The overall solution required us to provide a listing of data results for a given search term and link the results back to a MicroStrategy-based BI report containing the data. There are two ways to associate search results and the report:

 

  • By just-in-time evaluation of data values and report metadata to determine the report’s likelihood of containing that search keyword or
  • By maintaining a metadata-based mapping between the data indexed for the search engine and the MicroStrategy reports

We opted to use the second technique for its cost effectiveness. The usefulness of this feature is illustrated by a users’ ability to see matching fields where the search keyword has a direct hit. The UI provides a listing of fields immediately related to the search keyword, along with reference to the reports where the direct hits were found. Users can then click on the fields to see related content.

 

For example, a search for subsidiaries is likely to bring back a listing for products sold by a given subsidiary as part of related fields. Users can then click on products to see the detailed product list that is directly related to the search keyword. A link on this product listing will take the user to the most relevant MicroStrategy report, which will be executed after answering relevant prompts. This eliminates the need for the end user to deal with running a complex BI report.

 

In the end, those who are determined enough to circumvent the world in a simple yacht always do it, and a determined organization can make use of a given BI tool to achieve desired results. For general users, it makes sense to use the available means of circumnavigating the world; or rather they may just need to move from point A to point B in a commercial plane at a cost. The use of a search engine with BI tool provides that secure, commercial option to make things work in a significantly easier way.

 

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