Engaging Analytics with iPad
By Applications User Experience on Jul 21, 2011
Julia Blyumen, Principal Interaction Designer, Applications User Experience
Analytics of Yesterday
Once in a while, everyone is in a situation that requires making sense of numbers. However, most of the existing sense-making or analytic tools are not designed for everyone; they are designed for analysts. Analysts mold the data until it makes sense to them and publish the results to all the others (like myself) who are supposed to make decisions based on these results. If the information provided doesn’t quite make sense to us, and we need to see the information from a different angle, or at a deeper level, or if we have a different question to start with, well, we’re out of luck. All we have, by and large, are static pictures and numbers. For most of us, data analysis has been an artifact, not an action.
My end-of-year bank report
The business intelligence solutions expert Neil Raden estimates that the users of analytic tools comprise about 5 percent of the entire workforce. Most analytical work is done in spreadsheets. Raden writes that “while the number of [business intelligence] users is increasing, the bulk of the increase is in passive report distribution, not active analysis, collaboration, or decision-making.”
Analytics Goes Mainstream
However, in the last few years, there is a noticeable trend toward analytic mainstreaming. I can think of several reasons for that: availability of public data (like census data) and personal data (like blog stats or network updates), cheaper hardware, services that take advantage of public and personal data, and news sites featuring artsy visualizations (find more in this CNN article: “A new way of looking at the world”). Driven by curiosity, vanity, and convenience, we are now diving into the world of slicing and dicing. We have come to expect an intuitive, fully interactive sense-making experience that everyone, not only professional analysts, can enjoy.
iPad and Analytics
The unique mix of Apple’s iPad qualities—a natural user interface, mobility, and collaboration—have great potential to facilitate and propel the analytics mainstreaming to new heights. The first time that I held an iPad, I was elated with the possibilities that the platform presented to engage users in data analysis.
Too often in the visual analytic process, researchers tend to focus on visual representations of the data but interaction design is not given equal priority. We need to develop a “science of interaction” suggests the National Visualization and Analytics Center.
Much is said about the special feeling of “holding” information in your hands that iPad evokes in its users—the effect created by minimalistic hardware, 10-hour stand-by, instant responsiveness, and a chromeless interface. When analyzing cognitively intense quantitative information, it is critical that there is nothing in between information and its user.
Analytics and Natural User Interface
In his article, iPad's Natural User Interface at Work, user experience architect John Cartan defines natural user interface as “an interface that lets people use their natural behaviors to interact directly with information.”
Much is also written about the power of data visualization and visual analysis (for example, “Trends in Data Visualization Software for Business Users”). When you pair data visualization with the simplicity of multi-touch (building a query, drilling, and pivoting using natural gestures like dragging, stretching, and twisting), you have an immensely engaging analytic experience. Animation plays a special role in defragmenting the flow of analysis as users see data literally being “broken,” “stretched,” and “pivoted” into the next visualization.
iPad Gets the World Talking
iPad inherits all the collaboration features of a computer so that iPad users can take advantage of synchronous and asynchronous collaborative analytics on the Web and desktop (the likes of IBM’s ManyEyes, Tableau Public, or CoMotion Viz). iPad also offers two additional qualities. First, iPad, in Apple’s own words, is “your own mobile megaplex.” Imagine playing back any or all steps of your analysis like a movie—with voice over, highlights, and such. Then imagine projecting your analysis onto a big screen and sharing your quantitative story.
“The information that’s stored in our databases and spreadsheets cannot speak for itself. It has important stories to tell, and only we can give them a voice,” says Stephen Few. “Hans Rosling is an all-star of statistical narrative. If you watch one of Rosling’s presentations, you can’t help but be inspired about the possibilities of telling the stories that live in your own data.”
Second, iPad is great for sharing and collaborating in an intimate face-to-face setting. Since I am already holding the analysis in my hands, sharing it is as natural as passing it around the room. Collaborating over the analysis is easy and immediate, as all participants in the room pull up their chairs to view what’s on the screen.
Young users collaborate over an iPad. Image from koduco.com
Analytics and Mobility
Information is all around us, not only in the office. We can be struck by an idea or a question in the office or at the beach. With a tablet at hand, we can make sense of information anywhere and anytime.
“Tools that make it easy to shift seamlessly between different visualizations and different subsets of data, tools that seamlessly support the transition from data sense-making to data presentation, tools that make it easy to tell stories, and tools that support collaboration for making sense of data”—these are some of the concepts Stephen Few lists in his article “What Ordinary People Need Most from Information Visualization Today.” There may be a synergy between our aspirations for analytic tools and the qualities of the iPad platform, a synergy that can bring some of those concepts to life. Here in the Emerging Interactions group at Oracle, we believe that the direct translation of existing analytic interfaces into iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) will take us but so far. Only by gaining a deeper understanding of analytic tasks and then handcrafting the new natural interactions can we achieve a breakthrough in user experience.