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Visualizing the Future

By John Armitage, SAP AG – June 13, 2012 • The original version was published in SAP Info (see reference below)

Visual analytics is what makes data useful in the hands of decision makers. SAP's John Armitage talks about new and creative ways of displaying information.

In the 1990s, the Sabre Travel Information Network owned and operated the world's largest private transactional network, used by over 40% of travel agents globally. Sabre recorded the takeoff and landing of every commercial flight in the world via a transmitter in the aircraft's landing gear in real time, supported by one of the world's largest relational databases.

The company introduced Planet Sabre in 1997. With a fully graphical user interface designed to run on the Windows 95 platform, it was an ambitious project representing a major usability upgrade from the command-line products used by travel agents at the time. Difficult to appreciate by today's standards, Planet Sabre brought data from two different databases into a single view, and was innovative for its ability to display fare prices alongside flight schedules.

The user interface of Planet Sabre achieved the company's highest usability test ratings ever. But as Planet Sabre's lead designer, I learned that great product designs can be ruined by poor system performance and derailed by market disruptions. Despite the usability benefits of a combined fare/schedule display, Planet Sabre's multi-source query was still slower than agents doing two queries by hand on separate databases. Planet Sabre's visionaries went on to build the consumer site Orbitz around a high-speed query solution, which eventually disrupted the travel agency business model.

 

Mobile apps on a tablet

Figure 1: Mobile apps on a tablet (Source: SAP)

 

While analytics faces some similar challenges today, I feel optimistic about SAP's chances to both design great product experiences, and to make them perform well and scale. I therefore want to share some recent analytics design work, the forces shaping it, and how it supports SAP's product strategy.

 

An Exciting Time for Visual Analytics

It's an exciting time for visual analytics at SAP – for three reasons. First, SAP HANA's massive performance boost frees us to imagine new ways of working with data, and to challenge existing solutions designed for previous performance metrics. Second, our move to HTML5 promises wide re-use of single-source user interface assets with fewer constraints on form and behavior. Finally, on-demand markets and mobile deployments extend SAP value to many more end users, furthering the re-use of data and assets and allowing economies of scale to enable more investment in core innovation and quality.

While some people claim that such changes are irrelevant to, or even hinder, user interface design quality, technological change is in fact the major enabler of both functional and stylistic product design evolution across all disciplines. For an historical example, let's look at one of the most innovative movements in modern art, impressionist painting.

Impressionism, with its vivid painted depictions of fleeting moments, is perhaps the most popular art genre, and widely credited as a first example of the modern art movement. But what caused its sudden rise in popularity? It was technology. Photography was dramatically lowering the price of creating real images, forcing painters into more personalized and unique ways of interpreting reality, especially with the use of colors. The industrial revolution created wealth and a middle class with leisure time, widening both the pool of dabbling artists and the audience for fine art interest and purchase. Steam trains made travel easier, enabling painters to reach more outdoor destinations. Finally, an evolving understanding of relativity and time itself began to change concepts of reality and how to depict it.

Perhaps most relevant was the availability of pre-mixed paints sold in metal tubes. Previously, artists mixed their own paints, and needed a studio for the necessary space and materials. Landscapes were sketched on site and then painted back in the studio from memory, one reason that many pre-impressionist paintings simply look brown. The impressionists, free to carry their kit anywhere and work quickly, could paint a canvas outdoors in one sitting, enabling the style and technique that made them famous.

 

Video: Visual Analytics Design at SAP, Interview with John Armitage

 

LAVA and Pele

To demonstrate how current technological and market opportunities can transform how analytics are applied in the SAP product landscape, I launched two projects, LAVA and Pele.

I proposed LAVA as a user experience standard for analytic content in SAP products. The project began in 2011 as a team effort with Fred Samson of the SAP Experience Team. LAVA is best described as a method for analytic consumption. It makes analytics accessible to many more end-users, filling and expanding the role of traditional dashboards in the business intelligence landscape. It can be used as a stand-alone solution or for embedding within SAP products.

Simple and systematic, LAVA is intended to be low-cost, easily implemented, and widely applicable. State-of-the-art chart appearance, interaction, and scalability result from LAVA's clean, practical visual language. Templates and components enable continuity of user experience and code across devices and products, and components are built to enable social collaboration, annotation, and closed loop scenarios.

Pele is a more experimental project conducted with SAP Research, combining navigational menus with charts into a visualization environment that users can explore. Pele is also a response to the challenge to demonstrate “immersive interaction with quantitative information”, and addresses the request by Andrew Murray, general manager, SAP Mobile Analytics, for an intuitive, proprietary data exploration experience on mobile devices. The result combines semantic navigation (via words) with spatial navigation (via screen areas representing quantities) to provide a fluid, intuitive, immersive experience of exploring a data set.

The designs used in LAVA and Pele are notable for their simplicity and lack of extraneous elements, and exploit the power of HTML5-based front-ends, the performance of SAP HANA, and wide user bases. Their approach continues the critical path of information design development of the past forty years, driven primarily by the linear troika of Richard Saul Wurman (founder of the TED conference) in the 1970s and ‘80s, Edward Tufte in the ‘90s, and Stephen Few following the millennium. I liken them to Greece's Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Their mantra is clarity, simplicity, and practicality, and their work has driven these principles into base-level popular expectations for information design.

 

Figure 2: LAVA prototype: simple and systematic (Screenshot: SAP)

 

Getting Back on Track

Consumers of large amounts of data want clear answers quickly. Unnecessary content and styling only get in their way. Most business intelligence products have overlooked this in favor of out-doing the competition on UI styling and feature lists. But the reliance on heavy-handed design metaphors, such as literal images of analog knobs and gauges, became tiresome and impractical with daily use.

The growth in visualization literacy, the demand for more end-user value, and the requirement that on-demand products must sell themselves have the big players re-aligning along the lines of upstarts Qlik-Tek and Tableau. This doesn't mean we should abandon cool design or the “wow” factor. We just need to channel these efforts into product attributes that do not inhibit use and understanding. For example, it's now easier to build animated transitions between screens in the product user interface that are dramatic and fun as well as relevant, helping users to orient themselves within products and learn their behavior. Data does not need decorations like shiny surfaces, drop shadows, or simulated 3-d shapes to be beautiful and powerful. When these unnecessary elements are removed, and what remains is crafted with integrity to reflect its true nature, beauty and power are revealed. Art historians call this process “revealing the essence of the subject”. The writer Hemingway, architect Mies Van der Rohe, and musician Phillip Glass mastered this. The essence of analytic visualization is logic, clarity, efficiency, comparison, and the personal process of discovering and articulating quantitative insights that build knowledge and wisdom.

The next generation of BI opportunities include closed-loop database write-back scenarios, collaboration around data, social media enhancements, predictive analysis features, and personalization. Their adoption by users will depend heavily upon how they are visualized. State-of-the-art, systematic visualization practices will provide the foundation for their non-disruptive realization within SAP products.

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About John Armitage

As visual analytics architect in SAP's User Experience team, John Armitage is responsible for creating designs and design concepts for SAP's analytics products. John has a broad background in product design, as a designer, trainer, consultant, and manager. Before joining SAP, John founded and led the user experience team at BusinessObjects, and previous to this was lead designer for numerous financial products at PeopleSoft.

 

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