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Getting your hands on data with mobile analytics

Donald Farmer | July 17, 2014
Mobile touchscreen interfaces, when designed correctly, provide a more intimate relationship with business data. Donald Farmer of Qlik offers his take on three key UI design principles

A touch interface challenges more than the user experience. It encourages a new attitude to the data: exploration, not just passive reading. You need a platform that offers more than merely static reporting.

2. Responsive design
Mobile analytics also demands responsive interface design -- your analysis must work across many devices. However, responsive layout and coding for analytics have a surprising twist: You need a new approach not only to interface design but to information design, too.

You may be familiar already with the advice of visualization experts: how to choose color ranges to reveal patterns, which chart type works best for data of particular characteristics, and (often repeated) that you should avoid pie charts like the work of the devil!

Much of this advice, excellent as it is, is predicated on a static representation of data in a predetermined format on-screen or even printed out.

A responsive interface, by its nature, supports many form factors. The carefully chosen scale for your line chart in landscape mode can look deceptive if the user simply turns their device on its side. A legible and useful visualization on a desktop or tablet may turn into an unusable, eye-straining puzzle on a phone. A widget designed for the phone can look absurdly simplistic enlarged on a tablet.

You can solve this with painstaking design and coding, but you shouldn't need to. Your BI platform, if well-designed for mobile, ought to handle these scenarios generically. No dashboard designer should be forced to handle the complexities of multiformat design.

For example, a mobile BI platform should intelligently scale charts appropriately at any size. A scatterplot may show many data points at a high resolution. At a low resolution, the platform could algorithmically determine the optimal key points to show, still revealing the pattern and range of the data. However, at any size, the user should be able to zoom and select and interact with the chart to see their information from a different "viewpoint" to gain a yet more complete understanding.

Working with a responsive and exploratory design, old certainties about information design start to change. Personally, I find it painful to see a traditional pie chart with many segments and complex labels. What a horrible way to show useful data! However, if you can enlarge or shrink the pie to suit your format, and spin the chart around its center to bring different segments to the top, all the while showing only the labels most relevant to the current view ... now the pie chart feels more usable and interesting and informative.

3. Speedy discovery
With a responsive interface you're on your way to a better mobile analytic experience. Yet some developers worry that a JavaScript platform, for example, will not perform well enough to be "one client to rule them all." To be sure, users moving beyond static reporting to an exploratory experience need a fast client. If the client does not feel fluid and fast, users can lose interest or lose the thread of their thought when exploring data. Then they lose the value of an analytic application compared to a static reporting solution.


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