Overdesigning BI Architecture for SAP Design Studio

Rethinking when to install the SAP BusinessObjects Design Studio server components.

SAP Design Studio 1.3 Splash

Over two years ago, SAP unveiled their roadmap and strategy for dashboards (see related article, The Future of SAP Dashboards)Today, in 2014, many SAP BusinessObjects customers have committed to a two-prong strategy of continuing to support legacy Xcelsius/Dashboards while looking for opportunities to begin using SAP BusinessObjects Design Studio, the successor to both SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards and SAP BEx Web Application Designer (WAD). In some cases, it still makes sense to prefer Dashboards over Design Studio for new projects due to the maturity gap between the products.

Practically speaking, the two-prong strategy means that many BI administrators are installing the Design Studio components as part of their new SAP BusinessObjects BI 4.x deployments. SAP releases new versions of Design Studio approximately every six months. The current version is 1.3 and version 1.4 is expected in November 2014.

The Design Studio client app opens with an attractive welcome screen featuring a breathtaking mountaintop vista.

SAP Design Studio 1.3 Welcome

Although there’s a “Getting Started” section on the welcome screen for developers, there isn’t one for BI administrators, so here is some guidance. Design Studio, like SAP BusinessObjects Explorer, is not integrated out-of-the-box with the BI platform and has both web-tier components and server components, as shown in the installation screen below.

SAP Design Studio 1.3 Features

Ideally, these Design Studio server components would be integrated into the BI 4.x platform (see related article, Please Integrate the Integrated Enterprise BI Platform). But they aren’t, so plan head and put specific line items in your BI 4.x project plans for Design Studio installation and configuration tasks. The additional time required to install the server components can really add up, particularly if you have a lot of nodes in your BI 4.x deployment.

Installing Design Studio Before You’re Ready

In theory, proactively getting your BI 4.x platform ready for Design Studio seems like a best practice. I’ve done it for several customers. Unfortunately, in many cases you’ll spend extra hours installing a version of Design Studio that’s obsolete before your developers are able to use it for meaningful projects. This means that you’ll spend even more time later uninstalling the old version of Design Studio server components before installing newer ones.

Uninstalling obsolete Design Studio 1.1

 

Installing Design Studio When You’re Ready

Instead of budgeting hours for Design Studio in your BI 4.x upgrade project, place them instead in your first funded Design Studio development project. In this way, you’re guaranteed not to waste effort deploying a version of Design Studio that’s obsolete before you begin using it. The planning phase of a Design Studio project is also a good time to either apply the latest patch for your BI 4.x platform’s current Support Pack level or move up to a higher Support Pack level entirely.

In the meantime, install Design Studio on a sandbox server that isn’t part of your normal Development->Test->Production software development life cycle (SDLC). A sandbox environment is also a recommended place to test BI 4.x patches before committing them to the environments you use daily. You’ll be able to satisfy the needs of curious developers who want to begin learning Design Studio and conducting functionality bake-offs between Dashboards and Design Studio. New version of the BI 4.x platform or Design Studio server components? No problem. There’s only one server to upgrade.

Conclusion

If they aren’t already, your developers should definitely be putting Design Studio to the test (see Chris Greer’s related article, Is Xcelsius the new Deski? Die, Deski, Die!, on the EV Technologies blog). Give them some quality playtime in the sandbox. But until you’re truly ready with a funded project, don’t over-design your BI 4.x environment.

Other Perspectives on SAP Design Studio

What is your experience with Design Studio? Creating new dashboards or porting existing ones from Xcelsius/Dashboards?

MAD About Olympic Sports

Online journalism is changing expectations about corporate business intelligence.

Everyone’s mad about the Winter Olympics. But many online news sites have gone MAD with their Olympic coverage.

I’m referring to the MAD framework established by Wayne Eckerson in his fantastic book Performance Dashboards: Measuring, Monitoring, and Managing your Business. The MAD framework describes a three-tier system to track organizational performance:

  1. Monitor
  2. Analyze
  3. Drill to Detail

MAD-Dashboard-Framework

Starting at the top of the pyramid, we monitor using graphical, metrics data. This is the highly summarized dashboard that we typically think of. We analyze at a greater level of detail, typically with summarized, dimensional data. The data can be navigated by various hierarchies such as time or geography, or in the case of the Winter Olympics, a particular sport. Lastly, when questions arise, the MAD framework allows us to drill to detail, looking at a fine grain of information, typically a single transaction or event. It is not always necessary to examine this level of detail, but it is important to provide it so the root cause of a problem can be determined.

So how is this paradigm being used in Winter Olympics media coverage? I’m a big fan of the Wall Street Journal. It was one of the first news sites with a pay wall and I’ve been a subscriber since it first appeared on the world wide web. As with most news sites, the Wall Street Journal has added some interactive dashboards with updated medal statistics from the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. The Wall Street Journal includes an at-a-glance dashboard on its home page, number of medals by country. There is some drill-down capability, as we can look at all medals or get more information- news stories- about the event.

NBC_2014_Sochi_Dashboard_01 Clicking on “more Olympics” takes the reader to a new page that still has the highly summarized medal statistics at the top but now includes a smaller dashboard in the bottom right corner (I’ve highlighted it in orange) that breaks down the medals by gold, silver, and bronze.

NBC_2014_Sochi_Dashboard_02

If the user clicks on “all medals” instead, they can examine individual countries using a geographic map.

NBC_2014_Sochi_Dashboard_03

By hovering over the country, readers can see the total number of medals compared to the Wall Street Journal’s prediction. For example, Norway had 20 medals to its credit but the Wall Street Journal is predicting a total of 33.

NBC_2014_Sochi_Dashboard_04

The Wall Street Journal does a great job of allowing its readers to monitor a high-level summary. And we can drill down to individual countries. But there isn’t much in the way of analysis, nor a truly fine grain of detail such as individual sports or athletes. No doubt this is partly due to the Wall Street Journal’s executive audience. Typically, executives only need to carry around a few key statistics to share at the corporate water cooler. And after all, the Wall Street Journal is a financial newspaper, not a sports publication. True Olympic data geeks aren’t looking to the Wall Street Journal to provide ways of slicing and dicing Olympic results.

NBC_2014_Sochi_Dashboard_05

Another observation we can make from online journalism is that consumerisation of business intelligence is changing expectations of what’s possible. The ability of executives and middle managers to slice and dice Winter Olympics results is changing their expectations of what they should expect from their corporate business intelligence systems. What I really like about Mr. Eckerson’s approach is that business intelligence isn’t a dashboard. It isn’t data discovery. It isn’t highly formatted reporting. Instead, it is all of these things, well integrated and capable of meeting the needs of various stakeholders from the entire organization.

Is your organization struggling to deliver this kind of business intelligence? Wayne Eckerson’s book is still my favorite “if you can only read one book about business intelligence, read this one” book. But be warned. There is no “easy” button in business intelligence. It is difficult, multi-disciplinary work. It requires a well-blended combination of business knowledge and technical expertise. It is by definition disruptive to corporate culture. And we often learn that our biggest struggles are chiefly “people” issues and not “technical” issues.

Are you following the Winter Olympics online? I’m interested in which web sites you are visiting and how they are shaping your own ideas about analytics, business intelligence, and performance management. As always, your comments are welcome.

What Does the Fox Say?

What does Andrew Fox have to say about dashboards?

What does the fox say?

With an ocean in between us, I’ve never met Andrew Fox in person. But it’s on my bucket list to do so.

Andrew has written some helpful insights about dashboarding. Timo Elliott found much to like in Andrew’s article, which was also cited in last week’s ASUG Weekly News Roundup.

What does Andrew Fox say? That dashboard designers need to find balance between the need for sticky- sometimes flashy- dashboards and good visual design.

In delivering easy to consume, information rich, actionable insights maximising the use of the real estate available on the consumption device you stand the greatest chance of adoption by the “floating” users.

A Hobbits Tale…  My journey in dashboards: From Flashy to Few and back again…
Andrew Fox, Pre Sales Principal at itelligence UK

There’s a lot of hard-earned insights about business intelligence and analytics on Andrew’s blog – you should bookmark it.

Andrew Fox on Social Media

Now go build some dashboards! Wa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pow!

But really- what does the fox say?

What does the Ohio University Marching 110 say?

 

Information Dashboard Design, Second Edition by Stephen Few

Stephen Few releases a significant update to his classic dashboard design book.

Stephen Few has made significant contributions to the field of data visualization, publishing books like Show Me the NumbersNow You See It, and Information Dashboard Design. Drawing inspiration from experts like Edward Tufte and Colin Ware, Few has a real talent for bringing theoretical concepts to life in a practical way.

The first edition of Information Dashboard Design, published in 2006, completely changed my approach to building dashboards (see my review of the previous edition). The second edition of Information Dashboard Design (Analytics Press; Second Edition, 2013, ISBN 978-1938377006) is a significant revision and rewrite of its predecessor, with lots of new material. It is a reflection of how the world of data visualization has changed since 2006. None of the data visualization tools available at that time supported Edward Tufte’s sparklines or the author’s own bullet charts. Nor were there Apple iPhones (released in 2007) and iPads (released in 2010) to display analytics. The changes are also reflected in the subtitle, which is now “displaying data for at-a-glance monitoring” instead of “the effective visual communication of data.”

Information Dashboard Design by Stephen Few book cover

What has not changed since 2006 is software vendors’ pursuit of gaudy impractical visualizations like exploding pie charts (see related article, A Few Words about Data Visualization in SAP BI 4.0).

Without a doubt I owe the greatest debt of gratitude to the many software vendors who have done so much to make this book necessary by failing to address or even contemplate the visual design requirements of dashboards. Their kind disregard for visual design has given me focus, ignited my passion, and guaranteed my livelihood for years to come.

Stephen Few
Acknowledgements for Information Dashboard Design

Although Few is well-known for his disdain of pie charts, his advice is grounded in the science of visual perception. He devotes entire chapters to sparklines and bullet charts. And he provides new guidelines for visualizing data on smartphones and tablets. The chapter “Putting it All Together” provides in-depth analysis of real dashboards submitted for a dashboard design competition. It’s very instructive to see multiple dashboards attempting to meet the same set of business requirements, with varying degrees of success. And the book concludes with “From Imaging to Unveiling,” a short but meaningful chapter about how to design for success. Not only is the content valuable, but the hardcover edition is beautifully rendered in color with high-quality materials.

This is a book about dashboard design- not implementation. It’s not written exclusively for technicians, but anyone who has an interest in bringing useful data visualization to life in their organization. Few’s goal is “eloquence through simplicity” and he achieves it with this new book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

A Plug for your Adobe Flash Plug-In

Adobe really wants you to keep using your Flash player.

I was recently prompted to update my Adobe Flash player and was greeted by the following propaganda piece.

Update Adobe Flash Player

Great messaging from Adobe. You need our frequently insecure and unstable plug-in to play Facebook games and watch videos. No mention of “serious business productivity”. Or the fact that the upgrade may break your SAP BusinessObjects Xcelsius dashboards.

So please, for sake of usability, online security and stability, please update your Adobe Flash player. Pretty please? Before the Adobe Flash development team enters a recovery program for self harm.

Anyone up for a game of Farmville?

Choosing Dashboard Fonts

Although there are thousands of different fonts available, only a handful are truly timeless.

An important decision in designing a dashboard or other data visualization is the choice of a font. The most important characteristic of a dashboard font is that it should permit the dashboard user to view and process information quickly. It may seem boring as a designer to always reach for the same fonts. However, any novelty in a dashboard, whether a funky font or animation, can quickly become annoying when a dashboard is used on a daily basis. Older versions of Xcelsius, for example, limited the designer to a single font. Although that limitation was lifted in Xcelsius 2008, limiting the dashboard to one or two fonts is still a great first step in improved readability. Stephen Few offers the following advice:

You want a font that can be read the fastest with the least amount of strain on the eyes. Find one that works and stick with it throughout the dashboard. You can use a different font for headings to help them stand out if you wish, but that’s the practical limit.

Information Dashboard Design – Stephen Few – O’Reilly – 2006 – pp. 170-171

Remember that fonts with serifs, such as Times New Roman, give our brains clues and help us read faster. That is why most books are set with serif fonts. However, sans-serif fonts, such as Helvetica or its poor cousin Arial on Microsoft Windows, have a cleaner appearance. Monospaced fonts can help with the uniform display of numbers instead of proportionally spaced fonts; however, the standard Courier can be a bit boring.

Although there are thousands of different fonts available, only a handful are truly timeless. Take Helvetica, for example.

Last week, American Airlines announced a redesign of its logo and its livery. Gone is its previous logo, designed in 1967 by Massimo Vignelli. Considered by many logo designers to be a timeless classic, the retired logo used the Helvetica font, rendering AmericanAirlines as a single word in two bold primary (and, well, American) colors. You can read Massimo Vignelli’s thoughts of both the old and new logos in this BusinessWeek interview.

American Airlines new logo on planes
Photo credit: American Airlines

Massimo Vignelli and many other designers share their thoughts in the 2007 documentary Helvetica, which is currently available on Netflix as well as on DVD and Blu Ray at Amazon.com. Because I’m an engineer by training and not a visual designer, I found this documentary to be helpful even though it wasn’t specifically about dashboard design. I especially enjoyed viewing it again in light of the American Airlines redesign.

Helvetica served American Airlines well for over 40 years. I doubt that the dashboards we are building today will be in use 40 years from now, but we can still choose to be timeless instead of trendy in our visual designs.

What are some of your favorite fonts for dashboards?

Resources

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links on this web site above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. Also, some of the books I review were received as review copies and I’ve given my best effort to accurately disclose that information as part of the review. I am disclosing this information in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Future of SAP Dashboards

Analysis of SAP’s long-anticipated statement of direction (SOD) for dashboards

On Tuesday, April 17, 2012, the space shuttle Discovery made its historic final flight. Seeing images of Discovery flying over the US capitol piggybacked to its specially modified Boeing 747 gave me (and I’m sure many others) a profound admiration for NASA and its shuttle program. But it also left me wondering about the American space program’s future, worrying if its glory days are behind rather than ahead.

Space Shuttle Discovery Final Flight

On the same day, with unintentional irony, SAP posted an article on SCN about its long-anticipated statement of direction (SOD) for dashboards. The SOD served as a lead-in to yesterday’s popular ALL ACCESS to SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards (Xcelsius) webinar (see Pieter Hendrikx‘s live blog of the webinar). SAP speakers Mani Gill, Ty Miller, Jason Rose, Ian Mayor, Scott Leaver, and Mani Srinivasan were joined by Xcelsius Guru Mico Yuk for a brief presentation followed by a live Q&A session. The prepared content mostly recapped what was introduced in the SOD document, leaving most of the session for Q&A. Most of the conversation centered around three topics:

  • What is going to happen to Xcelsius/Dashboards
  • What is going to happen to SAP BEx Web Application Designer?
  • What is Zen and wasn’t it called SAP BusinessObjects Analysis, edition for Application Design last year?
But the SOD reveals much more information and is definitely a must-read for all SAP BusinessObjects and SAP Netweaver BW customers. I’d like to make three observations about SAP’s statement of direction on dashboards.

Two Types of Users

First, conversations about Xcelsius/Dashboards and SAP BEx Web Application Designer are primarily held by one group of people: developers. In the SOD, SAP describes two broad categories of data visualization: professionally authored and self-service. These two broad categories have long existed in BI. We often use them to compare and contrast Crystal Reports with Web Intelligence (although enterprise reporting vs. ad-hoc query and analysis is another method of comparison).

SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards and Zen [UPDATE: which shipped as SAP BusinessObjects Design Studio] are focused on the needs of “power users and IT”, which was probably the majority of attendees on the webcast. Zen is intended to be “a new, unified technology stack” that will begin life primarily intended as the successor to SAP BEx Web Application Designer (focused on SAP data sources like BW and HANA) and evolving into a successor for Xcelsius/Dashboards (focused on a broader set of data sources) as well.

But what about self-service dashboards? “In the future, exploration views (a functionality of SAP BusinessObjects Explorer) [introduced with SAP BusinessObjects Business Intelligence 4.0 Feature Pack 3] will become the preferred technology for building self-service BI applications.” And although Web Intelligence is not mentioned, its evolution in BI 4.0 continues to blur the line between “query and analysis” and “dashboard”. And from an end-user perspective, SAP will eventually deliver Exploration Views and Web Intelligence in a single mobile app, rather than the two apps that are required today.

Although a frequent criticism of SAP is that there are “too many BI tools”, I am glad to see SAP continue to recognize that these two broad categories of users require different tools.

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

Second, Tom Petty, a well-known business intelligence industry analyst, had the following to say about SAP’s Dashboard Statement of Direction:

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

SAP’s Statement of Direction outlines three phases. We’ll see the fruits of phase one go into ramp-up in late 2012, but the latter phases will take us into 2013 and probably 2014. That’s a long time to wait. Users of SAP BEX Web Application Designer will be able to use the inaugural edition of Zen. But for the foreseeable future, existing Xcelsius/Dashboard Design customers can continue using the product, extend it with some useful partner solutions, and hope for a fairly routine migration path (see related article, Between an Xcelsius Rock and Dashboard Design Hard Place).

The SOD is developed from the traditional “enterprise software company” cookbook, with emphasis on “protecting existing investments” and merging tools from different lineages into a unified whole. This is what “good” enterprise software companies do. But these typical assumptions mean that we must wait patiently for the results. I can’t help but wonder (aloud on the latest Diversified Semantic Layer podcast, State of the Dashboard Take 2) if a better strategy would be assembling a team of genius developers and building something completely new, without the baggage of existing products. Customers would get a groundbreaking mobile-first tool faster and be less likely to hear the siren song of other vendors like Tableau, Tibco, and QlikTech, and the like.

I recognize that I don’t know how to run a large enterprise software company and don’t understand their traditions. But neither do the young minds creating new data visualization start-up companies. AOL or Yahoo could have built Facebook but didn’t. Kodak or Polaroid could have built Instagram but didn’t. HP or Dell could have built the Apple iPad but didn’t. History is replete with tales of innovation and disintermediation- of David outsmarting Goliath. (See New York Times columnist Nick Bilton’s article, Disruptions: Innovation Isn’t Easy, Especially Midstream)

But perhaps SAP intends to surprise us with the efforts of a secret development team toiling away in an unlikely location like Hilo, Hawaii? [UPDATE: Hilo was the code name for SAP Visual Intelligence, later renamed SAP Lumira]

Xcelsius really is the new Desktop Intelligence

Lastly, this week’s events cemented for me (but not for the SAP panelists) that Xcelsius really is the new Desktop Intelligence (see related article Thoughts on Xcelsius). Yes, I’m fully aware that this analogy is short-hand for all kinds of negative imagery. But there is positive imagery that is worth remembering. Let’s not forget that with Desktop Intelligence, both Business Objects (the company) and SAP that purchased it, the vendor was committed to protecting existing investments and providing a migration path via tools like the Report Conversion Tool. Customers were grateful for the amount of time that Desktop Intelligence continued to be supported. But I’m sure that many at SAP wished they could have stopped support sooner. One reason for the long retirement period was it took Web Intelligence, the successor, many years to reach an adequate level of functionality to replace its predecessor. The reason Desktop Intelligence had a retirement in the first place wasn’t because the tool lost its usefulness. SAP could certainly modernize it if they wanted to (see my almost-plausible April 1 Hell Freezes Over article). Desktop Intelligence was retired because a majority of its users lost interest in desktop applications in favor of web applications. Now those same customers are shifting attention from the web to the mobile device. So we shouldn’t blame the vendor when we, the customers, are making their products obsolete.

Like Desktop Intelligence before it, some customers will continue to use Xcelsius and Dashboard Design well beyond the official end of support. But as a career professional, I’m labeling it as “the new Desktop Intelligence” as a reminder that I need to prioritize learning new skills.

Conclusion

SAP did a good job in authoring the SOD and responding to live Q&A. The effort was necessary and time well spent. And after the webcast I’m looking forward to SAPPHIRE even more. But even with all of the clear answers, I’m unsure. Unsettled. Perhaps it’s because Xcelsius can’t figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. Or maybe it’s because I’m the one who can’t figure out what I want to be when I grow up.

Business Intelligence is supposed to be about fact-based decision making. But today, it’s about emotion as well.

What’s your reaction to the SAP BusinessObjects Dashboarding Strategy and Statement of Direction and the ALL ACCESS SAP webinar?

Additional Resources

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