External-Facing BI Apps: Improve Usability with Interactive Features

Vaibhav FatingApril 14, 2015

In our last few blog posts, we’ve explored some of the challenges of creating business intelligence (BI) applications for external audiences like partners and customers. We want to continue the discussion here by honing in on another important part of application development, interactivity.

 

Whether you’re creating a BI application to use internally or for an outside group, one thing is certain: today’s users expect more interactive features. These features range from custom filters and search boxes to an optimized flow between grids. Essentially, they enable users to interact with the data in ways that suit their timeframe and objectives.

 

Default BI systems provide limited interactivity, and adding custom features is challenging. What specific challenges do developers face when it comes to making applications more interactive? How can you overcome the challenges? In this blog post, we walk you through the difficulties and share a solution. If you want to learn more, make sure you sign up for and attend our upcoming webinar, “Customizing the MicroStrategy Experience to Deliver Effective External-Facing BI Applications.” (Details follow at the end.)

Top Interactivity Challenges

Often, default systems do not come with the kind of interactive features today’s users need and expect, and customization is time-consuming and convoluted. What are the biggest challenges?

 

  • Optimizing the data grid
    Most default grids on BI tools do not support the selection of single or multiple grid rows, which is necessary when information from certain rows drives other components, and in creating requests to fetch extra information for selected rows. “Select all” and “de-select all” are other important grid features that can be utilized to perform operations like “delete,” “refresh,” “move to folder,” and “copy to folder.” These, too, are not often possible with default set ups.
  • Making multiple selections on a grid to drive data to other grids or charts
    A default dashboard created in a BI application like MicroStrategy does not enable users to make multiple selections and drive data to other grids or charts. This feature is helpful in quickly comparing data across multiple selections on trend lines and in filtering data on a second grid.
  • Creating user-defined attributes on the fly
    Many business scenarios require analysis to be drawn against user-defined attributes like geographical areas, zip codes, or market regions. Typically, users expect to be able to make these selections on the fly and to create user-defined groups of elements with a specific name (such as “growth in the northeast” or “sales in western Asia”). These capabilities are not available with out-of-the-box BI implementations, given that users aren’t able to select multiple rows on the data grid.
  • Reporting data filters
    BI software comes with a fixed layout and placement of components. For instance, data filters are always placed at the top of the grid and consume valuable real estate on the screen. This placement forces users to scroll up and down to filter and view changes.

Strategizing Solutions

Getting around the default dashboard’s limited interactivity isn’t easy. The trick is to utilize the BI platform’s application programming interface (API) and software development kit (SDK) in innovative ways. How can you achieve that?

 

Consider, for instance, that with the MicroStrategy SDK, a plug-in can be created to extend the behavior of transform layer changes. Then, using java script listeners, you can allow for the multiple selection of data grid rows, and facilitate the ability of users to create user-defined attributes on the fly.

 

In this example, selections on the grid are submitted to the web service, which fires a query to insert a new entry in the database. A response is then sent back to the user on the successful creation of the new asset (i.e., a new user defined entity).

 

Additionally, consider adding features like a search box to allow users to look for and identify terms in the grid’s content, and to filter rows by interests. You can make the search box even more interactive by building in “live search,” which starts filtering results immediately (while users are typing). Increasingly, “live search” is a common feature that users expect to see in the UI.