Dashboard Designer 4.0

There is still life for Web Intelligence in 2013

I recently had the opportunity to work on a dashboard project for a local Atlanta company. The scope of the project was simple, produce a report that allows users to compare key metrics within different levels of a single hierarchy. There were 5 different levels of the hierarchy and each level had to aggregate all values for that node. The data source was a well groomed corporate metrics mart. At first glance this appeared to be an easy task. There were no issues generating the SQL required for the metrics or KPIs. However, the volume of records that had to be projected into 16 different line charts, each having 10+ series, proved to be too much for flash and SAP Dashboards. Before you pass judgment, you should know that we used the most efficient design possible. Every record and column was used in the charts, no more, no less. In addition, Excel was not used to calculate anything. With that said, the render time was just under 5 minutes for the full dashboard. As you can imagine, this was not acceptable to the users.

With SAP Dashboards out of the question, we had to find another alternative. We looked at Explorer 4.0 SP5 and found that it did most of the calculation and handled the volume with ease. However, Explorer 4.0 is limited to a rather juvenile set of calculations (via calculated measures). As a result, some of the KPI could not be calculated in Explorer. We then turned to Web Intelligence for a solution. As it turned out, Web Intelligence was very capable of managing the data volume. The new charting engine in version 4.0 was able to produce crisp and elegant charts. Using the Input Controls, we were able to provide the users with interactive filters. In the end, the users found the final solution to be very useful. In my mind it was useful but lacked that standard dashboard look and feel. Given that Web  Intelligence was never designed to look, feel or act like a dashboard, the success of this project provoked me into thinking about SAP’s strategy for dashboards. What would SAP Business Object’s dashboard strategy look like if Web Intelligence was the core engine for dashboards. In addition, what would it take to enhance Web Intelligence to support dashboard features? For those that have experience with Web Intelligence, you likely already know just how powerful its engine can be in managing data from a relational source. Its ability to produce SQL, execute a query and then store the results in its data provider is very unique. We can also leverage its reporting engine to further query, slice, dice, merge, filter and group the data that was stored in one or more of its internal data providers. In short, it has a very powerful pre SQL and post SQL aggregation engine. When comparing this capability to other tools in the SAP BusinessObjects suite, there is little argument that Web Intelligence has a superior back-end aggregation and calculation engine. This topic was discussed in more detail in a past article named The good, the bad and the ugly of direct binding in Dashboard Design 4.0 (Xcelsius) . In a perfect world, the back-end engine of Web Intelligence and the front-end visualizations of Xcelsius (Dashboards 4.0) could have been merged to form an exceptional product. However, HTML 5 seems to be making Flash based tools (like Xcelsius – Dashboards 4.0) somewhat obsolete these days. Then there is SAP BusinessObjects Explorer. Explorer has an exceptional back-end engine and front end visualization engine as well. However, it currently lacks the ability to perform complex calculations. It too is flash based in the browser but it has an excellent mobile app to overcome many of the limitations of flash on a mobile device.

With these thoughts in mind, I started thinking about what it would take to enhance Web Intelligence to the point where it too could serve as a dashboard tool in the SAP BusinessObjects platform. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that SAP did not already have 3 to 4 dashboard tools and imagine that we are the product manager trying to devise a dashboard tool for SAP BusinessObjects. With those thoughts in mind, the following list will outline the enhancements that I believe would make Web Intelligence a powerful dashboard design tool.

  1. More Input Controls: Design more input controls based on the list currently available within Dashboard 4.0. Web Intelligence has a pretty useful list already, but a few more would go a long way.
  2. Free Form placement of Input controls: I should be able to place them anywhere on the reporting canvas.
  3. Input controls that restrict other input controls: This will add a cascading effect to the input controls so that the pick list in one is filtered by values selected in another.
  4. Add dials and gauges to the charting engine: Add a few dials, stop lights and gauges to the Web Intelligence charting
  5. Navigation links: Adding links within Web Intelligence that can point to other reporting tabs or objects on other reporting tabs within the same report. This would go a long way in devising guided navigation.
  6. Format and choose the location of the report tab bar: This too should be free-form placement or at least able to move to the top of the canvas.
  7. Full screen viewing: Set an option on the report that hides most of the tool bars and gives Webi’s canvas a full screen look and feel.
  8. The ability to add scorecard formatting to tables: Mobile can generate a sparkle chart in a table, why can’t Web Intelligence via the browser. Trend Arrows, signal bars and temp gauges in a table cell would be a nice addition as well.
  9. Add trend line, basic R and PAL capabilities to the tool: Wow… could you imagine the possibilities.
  10. Show hide objects based on input controls and formulas: This gives us the smoke a mirror effect that every great dashboard incorporates.
  11. Add support for location intelligence: Adding support for shape files and google.com maps would be a nice touch.

I don’t expect this to become a reality, but it is an interesting thought. What if we could go back in time just a few years and make
this suggestion? Would enhancing Web Intelligence today, to support dashboard style feature, be a viable solution?