Think of John Stuart Mill’s principle of utilitarianism – the “greatest-happiness principle”, which posits that one must always act so as to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, within reason. I think that this is a good principle for reporting; it’s about trying to make data as comprehensible as possible, to the highest number of possible data and information consumers. This is what I call ‘new BI’, where business users are no longer removed from their data, but have their own tools and input into the creation of reports, which is no longer the domain of IT-oriented staff.
The business users are at the heart of Business Intelligence; the data is all cleansed, sanitised, and loaded to support their endeavours to make strategic decisions and nurture innovation at their organisations.
I am passionate about displaying data to expose the ‘hidden nuggets’ of meaningful patterns and information that are hiding away in data warehouses!
I recently tried to share my experiences in this area by presenting at SQLBits, which is Europe’s foremost community SQL Server conference. I presented a slot which focused on applying the principles of cognitive psychology to reporting, and in particular to Reporting Services 2008 R2.
The nub of the presentation is that, no matter how slick, fast or large your data warehouse – if the users can’t understand it; then the project has ultimately failed.
When producing reports for users, I think it is important to have an understanding of the latest science around data visualisation, and what happens ‘inside people’s heads’ when they look at graphs. So, my presentation aimed to discuss some of the new findings, and to try to provoke people to invoke John Stuart Mill’s famous formulation of utilitarianism to reporting. I hoped that I helped some people to have a think about presenting their data in a way that can be consumed most easily, by the highest number of people.
Cognitive Psychology is a difficult area because there are no right or wrongs; just abstract principles – opinion and science-based – that do not always apply to individuals. However, the main thing is to ask the question in the first place: how do business users best perceive data, and how can I help that process along? So, some of the content may not be relevant to readers, or to their environments, but that’s ok – the main thing is to try and make people think about the heuristics that they deploy when they create graphs, and not just stick to a particular type of chart again and again, regardless of its suitability.
With that, I will return to John Stuart Mill: ‘Truth gains more even by the errors of one who, with due study and preparation, thinks for himself, than by the true opinions of those who only hold them because they do not suffer themselves to think.’