External-Facing BI Apps: Overcome Common Layout Challenges

Shantanu DixitMarch 27, 2015

Old-school analytics reports on business intelligence (BI) tools feature row after row, table after table of data — all in a tabular format on a single page. Often, columns extend beyond the screen view to the far right, causing users to get lost (and frustrated) as they scroll endlessly to read the report and find what they need.

This ineffective use of visual components challenges even those users who know and understand the data. When the target users are no longer internal analysts but outside audiences like partners, suppliers, or customers, a poorly designed layout can lead to a BI application that’s too cumbersome and time-consuming to use.

As we’ve discussed before on this blog, external-facing BI applications are the new frontier in business intelligence. And they require a new approach to design and development — one that keeps a broad user base in mind. Unfortunately, most application layouts fall short on user friendliness. What are the most common flaws? And how can you design a layout that encourages widespread use?

Layout Challenges in External-Facing BI Applications

Creating an effective application layout calls for a keen understanding of visual elements — and how the mind consumes and responds to information. Too often, application layouts feature these flaws:

  • An inappropriate visual hierarchy that deters users from focusing on relevant information or getting a clear view of all elements on the screen at once
  • Too much information on a single screen display, which slows the time it takes for users to understand and react
  • Visual clutter resulting from inappropriate or overuse of design elements, such as flashing buttons, images, color bands, patterned backgrounds, and 3-D effects — all of which distract the user
  • A lack of white space around each UI element (or a grid report that lacks padding), which creates an unappealing, cluttered layout.
  • Inappropriate use of colors, selected on a whim or just for decoration, and that fails to do things like highlight data or group similar items together.
Overcoming Layout Challenges

An effective layout makes all the difference in how users interact with your application — and whether they get the right information in the right place at the right time. Before designing a layout for an analytical application, determine the priority of the information you’re providing, and lay out your application accordingly. Typically, you want to:

  • Reserve the top left corner for the most important information, and place lower-level information in the bottom right area.
  • Group together related information so it can be assessed and monitored quickly.

Application content must be organized in a way that reflects the nature of the information and supports efficient and meaningful monitoring.

  • Avoid placing information randomly on the screen or sizing sections simply to fit the available space.
  • Also stay away from using multiple tabs and links that divert users’ perception from the most critical information. Instead, place critical information in one area so users can monitor it at a glance and easily compare.

As you design your application layout, follow these dos and don’ts.

  • Do

  • Highlight key metrics of the summary data.
  • Use visual elements to highlight patterns, trends, or complex relationships effectively.
  • Add adequate white space around UI elements.
  • Use clear, descriptive titles and labels.
  • Keep a consistent layout through the application.
  • Allocate minimal space to the header.
  • Provide drill-down links to groups with detailed information.
  • Don’t

  • Use vertical scrolling or horizontal tabs running off    the screen.
  • Highlight too much information.
  • Place too much information on a single screen display.
  • Use dark and bright colors as background.
  • Use animated effects in charts and visualizations.
  • Oversize your visuals simply to fill a void.
  • Use multiple tabs or confusing navigational links.

Keep these visual strategies in mind as you design the layout of your external-facing BI application. To learn how to customize other features of your BI application for a broad user base, read Amar Bhose’s blog post, “External-Facing BI Apps: Why Prompts Make or Break the User Experience.”