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Visual KPI reads multiple data sources in real-time (big data, historians, databases, manual data, web services and more) and adds context with KPIs, groups/hierarchy, alerts, and geolocation. It gets your critical data in the hands of more users without extensive training and it can be deployed in days, not months. Want to see how we do it?

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Top 10 Mobile App Success Factors

…and why enterprise solutions like Mobile BI are doomed without them.

Mobile BI has become quite the hot topic and quickly.  This is great for vendors like us, but it also means the market can look forward to many of the growing pains that come along with chaotic growth.  The primary problem is that every vendor will take a different approach because the market is immature and there are no standards established, or at least that’s what you might think.  And you would be wrong.

The first thing to do is ignore mobile BI for a minute.  Successful mobile apps are successful mobile apps.  Period.  What’s more is that all of the top mobile apps, for consumers or business, all share similar traits.  If you can capture most or all of these in your mobile BI app, chances are you have a winner.  This post is intended to highlight those characteristics in the context of mobile BI and dashboard applications, but frankly this applies to mobile apps of any kind.


Definitions:  Apps?  Mobile?  Success? 

well that is still a big debate (web apps vs. native apps) but it doesn’t matter for this post because it applies to any mobile situation (standing in line, working in the field, on a plane, on the couch, etc.), using any device (smartphones, tablets, notebooks, etc.), and via a downloaded app or the browser.  Why don’t these things matter?  Read on…

Mobile: I’m currently reading yet another great guide to mobile app design (Build Mobile Websites and Apps for Smart Devices) and I came across this quote from another book (Designing the Mobile User Experience) by Barbara Ballard:

“Fundamentally, ‘mobile’ refers to the user, and not the device or the application.”

Wow.  We could not agree more, and we are continually shocked by how many vendors get this backward.  You might be using a giant notebook with a 17” screen, but if you are using it in a taxi on the way to the airport you are still mobile, so mobile app characteristics still apply.  The same is true in reverse, so if you are using your iPad at your desk these factors might not be a priority.  Conclusion – it’s the user that matters more than the device.

Success: mobile apps are ranked on lists everywhere and while each uses different criteria (downloads, time spent, visits, etc.) the winners are usually the same.  The real factor for businesses and Mobile BI is “are they continuing to use it and get value” and therefore “getting their job done more effectively.”

So lets get to the meat of this post…


What do successful mobile apps have in common?

Below is an explanation of the top 10 success factors for any mobile app (native and web apps), including Mobile BI, and some examples of each (in no particular order):


1. Timely information

When a user is mobile, they are way more interested in what is happening right now, just happened, or is about to happen.  Giving them planning data about whether you should put a new restaurant a particular city a year from now is best left for the desktop.  This is why Twitter, Facebook, SMS, email, stock ticker and weather apps are always at the top of the most successful apps lists.  Most importantly, timely = addictive.


2. Small chunks

This is critical for Mobile BI and difficult for most vendors, especially if they come from a traditional BI / analytics background.  You might be used to giving users access to every permutation of data possible on the desktop, along with all the number-crunching tools in the world, but that is a recipe for disaster for mobile users.  Mobile users have limited time, and the need to accomplish something or check on something quickly and move on.  This is why Twitter and small posts on Facebook are so much more popular than reading full articles or books while mobile.  Even successful mobile games (like Angry Birds or Farmville) are broken into very small chunks  When the task is business related, this is amplified further.


3. Alerts

Not only must your app be great for people to want to use it, but real success comes when people don’t even have to proactively open the app to know when something has happened.  Remember, timely information is critical, so alerting someone that there is new information or that something has changed has a huge impact on the usefulness and overall usage of a mobile application.  Examples should be obvious, but here are a few: new emails vibrating your phone or popping up on screen, a new SMS makes your phone vibrate telling you your flight has been delayed, new Facebook messages are highlighted on the app icon itself, and breaking news stories pop up over the core application.  In Mobile BI applications like Visual KPI, you can not only alert people to state changes of KPIs or other metrics, but you can define a different ‘who’ to alert for every metric so you know you got the right person (or group of people).  This is a huge deal – no question.


Transpara Visual KPI GIS iPhone Mobile BI4. Location-aware

Top app lists always include mapping, directions and GPS applications like Bing and Google Maps.  What is more telling is how many other applications now highlight location as one of their top features.  Foursquare is all about checking in (as is Facebook), Twitter has geo location, photos are geo-tagged automatically, weather apps follow you, etc.  Think about how you use technology on the go and what questions you ask of your devices:  How do I get THERE?  WHERE am I?  What is the weather going to be like HERE this afternoon?  WHERE are my friends?  Is there free wi-fi NEAR ME?  This is also true with business applications.  Visiting your Paris facility?  What is going on there?  It is no secret that all of the assets and data you will track in the future will be geo-tagged, so success with mobile data apps will also take advantage of this.  Here’s a screen shot of geo-located KPIs (tank levels) at an oil refinery in France.  Makes sense, right?


5. Context is king

Related heavily to timeliness, alerts and location, putting information in context for users is critical.  If you on the TripAdvisor application or site and you are checking hotels in Hong Kong, it wouldn’t make much sense to show restaurant reviews in Sydney.  The same is true with Mobile BI and along with showing small chunks of information, the utility of the application relies on showing the right information, to the right people, and surrounded by relevant information that puts it in context.  If you see a sexy trend of data without any targets or limits shown, it is fairly useless.  If you get an alert that says something went wrong but it can’t tell you if it was a temporary blip vs. getting worse, along with what led up to that point, the alert also has no context that might help you make a decision.  The tough part is keeping things simple and providing small chunks while still providing enough information for context.


6. Changes frequently

This is another big debate in the BI world.  Traditional BI is throwing all kinds of data into their mobile apps and some customers ask for that, but we would disagree.  Again, look at the most successful apps; the ones you always have open or constantly check.  Compare that to apps you have that collect dust.  Notice a difference?  How often do you check email, or your stocks?  If you are like me (and most people) you do this constantly.  Every time you open up Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn there is new information, even if you just checked 10 minutes ago.  Applying this to Mobile BI software tells you more about what type of data you should be focused on rather than a feature of the app per se, but it is critical.  Speaking of critical, operations data inside of a company is what changes most and what often leads to critical situations and expensive mistakes if they aren’t exposed in time and in context.  That is why operations and other fast-moving data is the place to start in mobile BI.  Quarterly or monthly reports?  Even weekly?  Why bother putting that on your phone?  How about “is my manufacturing line still running?” or “how much cash do I have?” or “is the AC still on at the data center and how much bandwidth is available?”


7. Simplicity

I’m not just referring to the concept or the data, but also the number of features.  The winners here give people just enough information to be satisfied, entertained or to get their task accomplished and usually no more (unless they ask for it).  Some of the best ones won’t even give additional information (Apple is notorious for this and Windows Phone 7 does a great job as well).  This doesn’t mean you need to skimp on data in Mobile BI, but it means you need to think carefully about how to present that data given the user’s objective.  Information rich = good.  Feature rich = not so much.  Removing features is painful for a vendor and most are incapable, but those that master simplicity are often rewarded. 


8. Multiple devices

If you look at the top 10 lists of mobile applications and web sites by device, you instantly notice that the winners appear on almost all of them.  Why?  Because unless you make a solution that only Android users care about (maybe “find other Android users near me”) then you are severely limited your potential for success.  This ties in well to the native app vs. web app debate.  Netflix has decided that even their native apps will just be containers that present a web app that works on any device, and we do the same (if someone really wants and app).  Oh, and don’t forget that a mobile user is not the same as a smartphone users.  They could be on a tablet or even a notebook.  In the corporate world, you used to hear that “BlackBerry is our standard” message, but as soon as one exec demands an iPad or someone convinced their boss they need a Windows Phone or Android, the standard is blown.  Believe me, we talk to customers all day and there is no such thing as a standard.  Get over it.


9. Sharable

When dealing with content, the best thing you can hear is “it went viral.”  This is true in mobile applications as well.  The stickiness and share-ability are directly related to their success.  The social networks would be dead without this, but almost all successful applications have this feature built in.  I know what you are thinking – why would I let my users share my sensitive operations data?  Think about it – if there is a fire on your oil rig or a Tsunami is impacting your nuclear power plant, you want people to know and quickly.  Not the public, but the people inside of your organization  or anyone else who can do something about it.  I’m not talking about cutting and pasting data into an unsecure email, but instant sharing of exactly what you are looking at (like a trend or alert).  If you get this wrong, you just lost half or more of the value of having the solution in the first place.

So there you have it.  The nine success factors of the worlds best mobile applications.  Hey, wait…  You said there were 10.  Agreed, but if you re-read number seven you’ll see we cut a “feature” because it wasn’t important enough.

Agree?  Disagree?  Please add your feedback below and share it with your pals.

Want more?  Download the free eBook: 5 Mobile BI Mistakes


Video: The Visual KPI v4 User Interface

Finally getting around to some of those videos we promised to make, and this latest one is a brief walkthrough of the Visual KPI v4 user interface.  Now, I could write a nice little overview of what your about to see, but wouldn't that defeat the purpose of having video?  Take a look...

You can also find this video on our web site under the Visual KPI Tour.

Want more? Click to see more videos or download our free mobile BI guide.


What do Mobile BI and the Weather Have in Common?

2011-08-18 072

Mobile business intelligence continues to grow as a hot topic in almost all industries, but we see just as many people screwing it up as we see people getting it right.  One of the biggest mistakes we see people make is putting the wrong data on users’ devices.

The best way to understand this problem is to look at what you already do on your mobile phone and compare that to what you do on your PC or Mac. Can they do many of the same things? Yes. Is that how you use them? Probably not. Here are some of the most successful mobile applications:

  • Calendar and reminders
  • SMS and BlackBerry Messenger
  • Email
  • Twitter, Facebook and other social networks
  • Maps and directions
  • Foursquare
  • Stock market apps
  • Weather
  • News

So what characteristics define success on mobile vs. success on other devices like your PC?

  • You use your PC when you need to type a long document like this one, or do some heavy number crunching or detailed research. It’s just plain better, and not just because it has a keyboard and a bigger monitor. It’s also better because you are usually sitting down, in a somewhat controlled environment and you have the time to focus.
  • You use your mobile when you are doing things that are meant for the ‘here and now,’ such as telling someone you are late, sending a text message about something you just saw, or looking up directions to a restaurant when you are on the way. Most of these things are either time or location sensitive, making them uniquely mobile.
  • Location. People use their mobile device is because it is just that – mobile. Other than email and a few other activities, the types of information you interact with when you aren’t at your desk are often different and for good reason. If you drive a truck and maintain power lines and fix outages all day, you are truly remote and you have much less of a need for heavy data processing – you need answers so you can make decisions regardless of your location.

Here’s the problem: many people consider mobile BI just a mobile version of traditional BI. They approach a mobile BI project as an effort to cram their existing BI tools and reports onto the nearest device as it it were a clown car, and this most often fails.  They are different, and should be treated as such.

So what are the key types of data that are truly meant for the mobile device? While the answer is very broad and is unique to every business, there are some key characteristics that can help us narrow down what we should be looking at:

  • Operations data – things that stop the “trains” from running on time.
  • Time-sensitive information – If you need to know quickly when there is an issue or an opportunity.
  • Mission-critical data – many of our customers use our software in mission-critical environments where decision support with key metrics can help avoid major disasters.
  • Remote data – are your subject matter experts fewer than your locations, and are your facilities and assets distributed. Extreme examples of this include wind farms (where the farms are remote, and the turbines are even remote within the farm) and oil & gas refining (pipelines, oil rigs, etc.).

Just like defining the right role, choosing the right data to put in front of people is critical to the success of any mobile business intelligence deployment. Taking your existing business intelligence data (which is often more focused on longer-term planning and reporting) and trying to shove it onto a mobile device can be not only painful, but also highly ineffective.

Want to know more?  Download our free Mobile BI guide to read about several other key mistakes and how to avoid them.


BYOD and the “Consumerization” of Enterprise IT


Maybe it’s time for Enterprise IT to learn a lesson from the Consumer space. 

In a previous post, we argued that a backlash is brewing in the enterprise because the consumer App Store model just won’t work in many businesses.  Consider this the other side of that story…

Enterprise IT has long held the notion that the data they sequester behind corporate firewalls, tokens and cumbersome multi-factor authentication is so valuable that draconian measures are justified when allowing access to the data by the business users.  Business uses regularly tell me that they are tired of IT and its weary “no soup for you!” approach.  These business folks are not interested in all the reasons why their reasonable requests for data access are “difficult” or “impossible,” they simply want to use the data stored in corporate systems to help them make timely, fact-based decisions which ultimately serves their company more effectively. 

These business users can’t understand why they easily have secure access to their personal digital media from anywhere in the world (and on any device they wish) and yet have almost no access to corporate data once they leave the confines of their cubicle and its wired-in desktop.  It reminds me of the early factory-worker days when time clocks and micromanagement ruled the day; where being seen sitting at your desk like Bob Cratchit was more important than getting something accomplished.  Those days are long gone but certain Ebenezer Scrooge attitudes linger in IT to this day.

The workplace has been increasingly democratized as information began to flow more freely between peers as well as up and down the management hierarchy and the supply chain.  Today’s workers are expected to analyze situations and make intelligent choices about solving problems on a daily basis.  Workers at all levels now routinely use information about their company, its operations, strengths and weaknesses to more cleverly deliver results to feed the maw of analysts and the quarterly earnings-driven world of Wall Street.  These workers NEED this corporate information to do their jobs, yet they are rarely sitting at their desk pondering their flat screen. They are offsite at planning sessions, or they are traveling to another site, or they are on call on a weekend. Regardless of what took them away from their desk, every hoop we make business users jump through means less time actually devoted to problem solving!

The tail has been wagging the dog for long enough.  It is time for Enterprise to IT take advantage of the advances in consumer-facing security and data delivery to help business users accomplish their work faster and with better information at their fingertips.  In fact, they may not have a choice in the very near future since many of our large customers have stopped issuing company-provided smart phones and started adopting a corporate policy of “bring-your-own-device (BYOD).”  Essentially companies are lowering operating costs by shifting the burden of accounting for corporate use of smartphones to the employees, and using a reimbursement model to repay employees for business use of their personal devices.  Some people have even speculated that the primary reason for BYOD is to break the stranglehold that IT has on corporate data.  This has significant implications for Enterprise IT:

  • First: Clinging to the idea of a “corporate standard” smartphone has always been a fantasy, since new devices ship every week and management has always done whatever they want regardless of the approved model list.  Now this fantasy is completely destroyed by opening the choices to literally hundreds of devices, and having the device selected primarily for its consumer-oriented features.  While Blackberries once ruled the enterprise, they are now but one choice in a tidal wave of new, feature-rich smart phones.
  • Second: Demand for access to corporate data will increase exponentially as the smart devices become pervasive in the enterprise.  A quick look at the IT news will tell you that mobile BI, mobile data monitoring, mobile alerts and mobile analytics have all become hot topics.  Once a status symbol of the executive management team, accessing real-time corporate data will become commonplace among the rank and file, using their web-enabled smartphones pointed at corporate servers.
  • Third: Forget about “web-enabling” existing applications.  This slippery slope has been tried for years with only large, unfinished projects to show for it.  Business users have never wanted their desktops on their smartphones, they simply want access to the data.  Smart IT organizations will realize this and find ways to “repurpose” corporate DATA (not applications) in a safe, secure, timely and scalable manner.  It won’t take them long to feel the “app backlash” we wrote about earlier this year, and quickly turn to web apps to solve their immediate and future problems in a proven way.  

This “consumerization” of the business will happen whether Enterprise IT is ready or not, so smart organizations are gearing up for this.  They are focusing their IT gurus on delivering secure web access to any portable device, on demand and driven by business needs, not corporate paranoia.


Identity Crisis: Mobile BI, Dashboard, Monitoring or Something Else?

MP900382665[1]Look across the world of mobile business applications and all of the people that write/blog about them and one thing becomes clear, “mobile BI” has a buzz right now.  So does “mobile dashboards,” “mobile operations monitoring,” “mobile alerts” and a few others.  This has prompted the obvious questions of late: “which one are you (meaning Visual KPI)?” 

The question doesn’t come from customers very often because a) they make up their own terms and don’t seem to care what we or “the industry” seem to call this stuff, and b) they are always right.  It comes more often from analysts, bloggers, partners and competitors.  Either way, it has been on our mind lately so I thought it deserved a few words.

The easy answer is d) all of the above.  This is correct, but let’s look into it in as simple a way as possible:

Mobile BI:

Home-Page-Phone-Collage-2Why we fit this definition: at its most root level, BI is all about decision support.  Getting great data to help you make better decisions.  Add mobile to it and it’s all about getting the right data to the right person at the right time on the right device and in context.  This is our bread and butter.  It’s what we live for.

Why we don’t fit this definition: from an industry perspective, BI has a long history in software and a set of applications have become synonymous with BI, including data warehouses, OLAP cubes, and sophisticated data processing.  Each of these implies you are the master source of data, and this is where Visual KPI is different.  We say leave your data where it already lives, get the most from it and do everything to avoid a huge deployment project.

Verdict: Visual KPI is mobile BI, because mobile business intelligence is not just traditional BI on mobile devices.

Download our free guide - avoiding the most common mobile BI mistakes

Mobile Dashboards:

Why we fit this definition: The literal definition of a dashboard is a panel of instrumentation and controls which is basically the same as decision support.  In the software world, this usually means a screen or set of screens with graphical representations of data that can give you the information you need at a glance.  ipad-2-4-KPI-Map-FlatOn all of these fronts, Visual KPI is a clear fit.  Scorecards, heat maps, KPIs, roll-up/pie charts, etc.  Traditional dashboard software often pulls data from many sources which is also something Visual KPI does.

Why we don’t fit this definition:  As with mobile BI, dashboards have some legacy baggage they bring with them into the mobile world (right or wrong).  In the world of traditional BI, dashboard software was usually a toolkit that you could use to design a dashboard as a front-end to your data warehouse or other data source.  Dashboard implementations still involved coding and a multi-month project, etc.  Visual KPI is not a toolkit but a finished application.  It is all data driven with no screens to build, and it uses Microsoft Excel as its design environment so there is no coding.  If a customer knows what they want to see and where to get it (data source), and how it is arranged (hierarchy), a Visual KPI deployment can happen in hours.  This is why we can deploy an enterprise-class server application on a free trial.

Verdict: Visual KPI is mobile dashboard software.  It sheds the big project, custom coding a design work and was built for mobile from the start, but it delivers a great dashboard experience for operations or other parts of a data-driven business.  We also don’t require a local app on the phone, but that’s another story altogether.

Mobile Operations Monitoring and alerts:

iPhone-4-3-AlertWhy we fit this definition:  This one is much easier.  First, everything about this is a fit.  We are mobile.  Our sweet spot is operations and fast-moving and fast-changing data.  We always show the most current data and alert you when things go wrong, or right, or whenever you want us to.  Like other monitoring tools, we can read data from the source (or many of them) and we present results clearly for making fast decisions with context.

Why we don’t fit this definition:  For the most part Visual KPI is clearly an operations monitoring and alerting application, but like the terms above there is already a monitoring software industry that might have some opposing views on it.  The most obvious monitoring scenario that comes to mind is data center monitoring or Network Operations Center (NOC) monitoring.  Much of this software is tailor-made for large screens, involves huge projects to deploy and often includes 7-figure price tags.  We clearly differ on price, deployment time, and mobility.

Verdict:  Visual KPI is mobile operations monitoring, and could also be called lightweight operations monitoring software if you use it on the desktop.

Mobile data visualization, mobile MES, mobile SCO, and many others. There are a host of other terms we could do this analysis on but really, what’s the point?  As I mentioned at the top of the article, the customer is really the only one who matters.  One of ours even calls us “Blackberry PI” because they use Visual KPI to put OSIsoft PI System data on their Blackberries.

The real questions is: what do you think?  We would love to hear some other opinions on this.

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