External-Facing BI Apps: Toward a More User-Friendly Navigation

Sarang MasneMarch 10, 2015

Developing a business intelligence application for your customers, partners, or suppliers comes with a different set of parameters than creating an app for employees to use in-house. While you can train in-house employees, you won’t have access to external users and can’t count on them to have even a little experience with standard BI applications. What can you do?

As we’ve discussed before on our blog, external-facing BI apps need to be designed with a broad user base in mind. Outside users tend to expect a convenient and self-explanatory navigation within the app’s various modules and screens. Unfortunately, most out-of-the-box BI apps come with a generic navigation that fails to meet users’ needs. Unable to find their way around or use the tool effectively, they grow frustrated and stop using the app altogether.

How can developers and companies alike create a navigation that encourages, rather than discourages, user engagement? Here, I explore the navigational components lacking in out-of-the-box BI functionality and provide strategies for working around these limitations to satisfy an outside audiences’ needs.

Navigation challenges of external-facing BI apps

Just as out-of-the-box BI functionality makes it difficult to create custom prompts, it also limits navigation capabilities. The most common navigation challenges include:

  • An inability to save prompt answers under user preferences. Users notice and become frustrated when they have to key in the same information time and again. Yet most generic BI apps don’t allow them to do things like create a favorites section; have a link to a preferences screen remain visible throughout the application; or save prompt answers under a favorites section. This, in turn, makes the navigation cumbersome and complex.
  • A lack of integration with other company portals and platforms. When users are accustomed to a particular corporate portal for accessing things like communications and data, they expect the new application to have the same look and feel, along with the same user experience. Unfortunately, most generic apps don’t accommodate a fully-integrated set up.
  • Inadequate display of report output sections. Some BI apps feature a large number of components like grids, maps, and charts — all on a single page. Here, users have no choice but to scroll through a long vertical page. In addition, the user interface of out-of-the-box systems makes it difficult to represent hierarchy folder tree structures to access saved reports. Users benefit greatly when they can save the reports they create in a defined hierarchy folder. Without that feature, navigation is a real pain point.
  • Sub-par report and object management capabilities. Standard BI apps lack a single place to view the status of a report that has been executed or to manage user objects, leaving users to poke around and find their way “out of the dark.”

How to overcome the navigational challenges

There are ways around the many navigational challenges of out-of-the-box BI app functionality, but it takes a skilled developer and a strategic approach. Here are some possibilities:

  • Create a feature that enables users to pick up prompt answers from multiple prompts and store them as a list or collection that can either be used directly in reports or applied as a filter on any executed report. Users would then be able to manipulate the list at runtime and collect their favorite assets in a separate bucket.
  • Integrate the navigation of the BI app into the company’s existing portals and platforms. Try, for instance, aligning navigational components such as tabs, and consider a mutually inclusive approach in which you launch the application in the same inline frame (iframe) as that of the portal. Likewise, weigh the pros and cons of an exclusive approach, in which you launch the application in an independent window. Consider the “to and from” exchange of data and events, such as whether the portal logout will drive the application logout.
  • Utilize the screen real estate efficiently to optimize user experience. Create a custom “Jump to Section” button, defining which section of report output opens first, and which sections should be hidden from view. For example, in a document with multiple grids, charts, and maps, a well-placed button in the header will allow users to jump to a particular section. Likewise, a floating “Go to Top” button can make it easy for users to navigate to the top of the page and avoid having to scroll.
  • Use the application programming interface (API) to create a custom report management interface to capture information such as the status of a report that has been executed, the date created, date accessed, and report type. Also embed options to perform operations on reports like single/multiple refresh, move to folders, copy, delete, and publish to other users.

A number of small but effective customizations can add up to better navigation and a better user experience. In turn, this can make your external-facing BI app more widely adopted — and ultimately create a stronger ROI.