BI-specific analysis of BI requirements

Problems of requirement analysis

Practically every BI project is about requirements, because requirements communicate “what the client wants”. There are essentially two problems with this communication: the first is that clients often do not end up with what they really need. This is illustrated in the famous drawing in Figure 1: What the customer really needs.

 

Figure 1: What the customer really needs (Source: unknown, with additional material by Raphael Branger)

The second problem is that requirements can change over time. Thus, it can be that, especially in the case of long implementation cycles, the client and the contractor share a close consensus about what is wanted at the time of the requirement analysis. By the time the solution goes into operation, however, essential requirements may have changed.

Figure 2: Requirements can change over time

Of course, there is no simple remedy for these challenges in practice. Various influencing factors need to be optimized. In particular, the demand for speed calls for an agile approach, especially in BI projects. I have already written various articles, including Steps towards more agility in BI projects In that article, among other things, I describe the importance of standardization. This also applies to requirement analysis. Unfortunately, the classic literature on requirement management is not very helpful; it is either too general or too strongly focused on software development. At IT-Logix, we have developed a framework over the last ten years that helps us and our customers in BI projects to standardize requirements and generate BI-specific results. Every child needs a name, and our framework is called IBIREF (the IT-Logix Business Intelligence Requirements Engineering Framework)

Overview of IBIREF

IBIREF is divided into three areas:

Figure 3: Areas of IBIREF

  • The area of requirement topics addresses the question of what subjects should be considered at all as requirements in a BI project. I’ll go into a little more detail about this later in this article.
  • In the requirements analysis process, the framework defines possible procedures for collecting requirements. Our preferred form is an iterative-incremental (i.e. agile) process; I have dealt here with the subject of an agile development process through some user stories. It is, of course, equally possible to raise the requirements upfront in a classic waterfall process.
  • We have also created a range of tools to simplify and speed up the requirement collection process, depending on the process variant. This includes various checklists, forms and slides.

Overview of requirement topics

Now I would like to take a first look at the structuring of possible requirement topics.

Figure 4: Overview of possible requirement topics

Here are a few points about each topic:

  1. The broad requirements that arise from the project environment need to be considered to integrate a BI project properly. Which business processes should be supported by the BI solution to be developed? What are the basic professional, organizational or technical conditions? What are the project aims and the project scope?
  2. If the BI solution to be created includes a data warehouse (DWH), the requirements for this system component must be collected. We split the data requirements into two groups: The target perspective provides information about the key figures, dimensions and related requirements, such as historiography or the need for hierarchies. This is all well and good, but the source perspective should not be forgotten either. Many requirements for the DWH arise from the nature of the source data. In addition, requirements for metadata and security in the DWH have to be clarified.
  3. The BI application area includes all front-end requirements. This starts with the definition of the information products required (reports, dashboards, etc.), their target publication, purpose and data contents. One can then consider how the users navigate to and within the information products and what logic the selection options follow. One central consideration is the visualization of the data, whether in the form of tables or of diagrams. In this area, advanced standards such as the IBCS provide substantial support for the requirement analysis process (read an overview of my blog contributions to IBCS and Information Design here). The functionalities sub-item concerns requirements such as exporting and commenting. When it comes to distribution, it is interesting to know the channels through which the information products are made available to the users. And it is important to ask what security is required in the area of BI application too.
  4. The issue of requirement metadata is often neglected; however, it is useful to clarify this as early as possible in the project. This concerns the type of additional information to be collected about a requirement: Does one know who is responsible for a requirement? When was it raised, and when was it changed again? Are acceptance criteria also being collected as part of the requirement analysis?
  5. Lastly, requirements need to be collected for the documentation and training required for the use and administration of the BI system.

Summary

In this article, I have indicated that requirement analysis presents a challenge, both in general and especially in BI projects. Our IBIREF framework enables us to apply a standardized approach with the help of BI-specific tools. This allows both our customers and us to capture requirements more precisely, more completely and more quickly, thus enhancing the quality of the BI solution to be created.

Upcoming event: Please visit my team and me at our workshop at the TDWI Europe Conference in Munich in late June 2017. The theme is “Practice Makes Perfect: Practical Analysis of Requirements for a Dashboard” (though the workshop will be held in German). We will use the IBIREF framework, focusing on the BI application part, in roleplays and learn how to apply them. Register now—the number of seats for this workshop is limited!

(This article was first published by me in German on http://blog.it-logix.ch/bi-anforderungen-bi-spezifisch-erheben/)

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My life as a BI consultant: Update Spring 2017

Spring 2017 in Provence (France)


Obviously I hadn’t time to write much on my blog during the last nine months. Let me share with you what topics kept me busy:

For the upcoming months I’ll be visiting and speaking at various events:

  • IBCS Annual Conference Barcelona: June 2nd, Discussion of the next version of the International Business Communication Standards.
  • TDWI 2017 Munich: June 26-28, Half-day workshop about practical gathering of requirements for a dashboard.
  • MAKEBI 2017 Zurich: July 3rd, I’ll be presenting a new keynote around alternatives to traditional estimation practices
  • BOAK 2017 Zurich: September 12th, same as with MAKEBI, I’ll be presenting a new keynote around alternatives to traditional estimation practices
  • WhereScape Test Drive / AgileBI introduction Zurich: September 13th: During this practical half-day workshop you learn hands-on how to use a DWH automation tool and you’ll get an introduction to the basics of Agile BI.
  • My personal highlight of today, I’ll be speaking during Agile Testing Days 2017: I’ll do a 2.5 hours workshop regarding the introduction of Agile BI in a sustainable way.

It would be a pleasure to meet you during one of these events – in case you’ll join, send me a little heads-up!

Last but not least, let me mention the Scrum Breakfast Club which I’m visting on a regular basis. We gather once a month using the OpenSpace format to discuss practical issue all around the application of agile methods in all kind of projects incl. Business Intelligence and Datawarehousing. The Club has chapters in Zurich, Bern as well as in Milan and Lisbon.

Steps towards more agility in BI projects

“We now do Agile BI too” – such statements we hear often during conferences and while discussing with customers and prospects. But can you really do agility in Business Intelligence (BI) and data warehouse (DWH) project directly? Is it sufficent to introdouce bi-weekly iterations and let your employees read the Agile BI Memorandum [BiM]? At least in my own experience this doesn’t work in a sustainable way. In this post I’ll try to show basic root cause relations which finally lead to the desired agility.

DWHAutomation

If at the end of the day we want more agility, the first step towards it is “professionalism”. Neither an agile project management model nor an agile BI toolset is a replacement for “the good people” in project and operation teams. “Good” in this context means, that the people who work in the development and operation of a BI solution are masters in what they do, review their own work critically and don’t do any beginner’s mistakes.

Yet, professionalism alone isn’t enough to reach agility in the end. The reason for this is that different experts often apply different standards. Hence the next step is the standardization of the design and and development procedures. Hereby the goal is to use common standads for the design and development of BI solutions. Not only within one team, but ideally all over team and project boundaries within the same organization. An important aid for this are design patterns, e.g. for data modeling, the design and development of ETL processes as well as of information products (like reports, dashboards etc.).

Standardization again is a prerequisite for the next and I’d say the most important step towards more agility: The automation of as many process steps as possible in the development and operation of a BI solution. Automation is a key element – “Agile Analytics” author Ken Collier dedicateds even multiple chapters to this topic [Col12]. Because only if we reach an high degree of automation we can work with short iterations in a sustainable way. Sustainable means, that short iterations don’t lead to an increase in technical depts (cf. [War92] and [Fow03]). Without automation, e.g. in the areas of testing, this isn’t achievable in reality.

Now we are close to the actual goal, more agility. If one can release new and changed features to UAT e.g. every two weeks, these can be released to production in the same manner if needed. And this – the fast and frequent enhancement of features in your BI solutions is what sponsors and end users perceive as “agility”.

(this blog was originally posted in German here)

Event hints:

Literature:

[BiM] Memorandum for Agile Business Intelligence: http://www.tdwi.eu/wissen/agile-bi/memorandum/

[Col12] Collier Ken: Agile Analytics, Addison-Wesley, 2012

[War92] Cunningham Ward: The WyCash Portfolio Management System, http://c2.com/doc/oopsla92.html, 1992

[Fow03] Fowler Martin: Technical Debt, http://martinfowler.com/bliki/TechnicalDebt.html, 2003

A (Webi) dashboard built by a business (power) user

This blog post is inspired by a recent customer request to challenge their decision to use Design Studio for some “dashboard requirements”. Showing how you can create a dashboard in Webi doesn’t mean I told the customer not to use Design Studio. Much more it is to show that finally a dashboard as well as every other type of BI front end solution is made up of requirements and not primarily by the tool you build the solution. Please refer to my Generic Tool Selection Process for more details as well as my post regarding BI specific requirements engineering.

Having said this, let’s have a look at how we can use latest Webi 4.1 features to quickly build an interactive dashboard without the need of (much) scripting. First of all here is what the final result looks like:

01_DashboardOverview1

You can select values from the left side bar (Product Lines), you can select States by directly clicking into the table and you can switch from the bar chart to a line chart. Here you see it in action:

The first step to achieve this, is to create the basic table and the two charts. Until the dynamic switch is implemented, I placed them side by side. Next add a simple input control in the left side bar:

02_SimpleInputControl 03_SimpleInputControlDepend

Next thing is to define the table as an additional input control – right click the table and choose “Linking” and “Add Element Link”,  choose the two chart objects as dependencies:

04_TableAsInputControl 05_TableAsInputControlDepend

Next we need to create the “switch” to toggle the two charts. As I would like to position this switch at the top right corner of the chart, I again use a table input control. To generate the two necessary table values (namely “Bar Chart” and “Line Chart”) I prepared a simple Excel spreadsheet:

08_ExcelContent

In 4.1 you can now finally upload this sheet directly into the BO repository:

07_UploadExcel

If you need to update the Excel sheet later on, this is now feasible as well:

09_UploadExcelReplace

Finally, in Webi add the Excel sheet as a second query:

10_ExcelQuery    10_ExcelQueryDetails

In the report we need now two tables: A visible one to represent the chart switch and a (hidden – see the “Hide always” option) dummy table to act as a dependency for the first:

13_HiddenDummyTable  12_HideDummyTable

The most tricky part is to create a variable to retrieve the selected value:

15_VarSelectedChartType

Here the formula for copy / paste:

=If( Pos(ReportFilterSummary(“Dashboard”);”Chart Type Equal “) > 0)
Then Substr(ReportFilterSummary(“Dashboard”);Pos(ReportFilterSummary(“Dashboard”);”Chart Type Equal “) + Length(“Chart Type Equal “);999)
Else “Bar Chart”

(The idea for this formula I grabed from David Lai’s Blog here)

Finally you need to configure the hide formula for both charts:

16_DynamicallyHideChart

That’s it.

Conclusion

Positive: I’m not too technical anymore (I do more paperwork than I wish sometimes…). Therefore I don’t consider me a “developer” and I like solutions for the so called “business (power) user” more and more. Therefore I like Webi. It took me about 60 minutes to figure out how to create this kind of interactive dashboard. I didn’t need to install anything – I could do everything web based. Except for one single formula (which I didn’t need to write myself)  I could click together the above sample. And I dare to say it looks like some kind of a dashboard 🙂 In addition I have all the basic features of Webi like a broad range of data source support, plenty of export possibilities, Office integration and so on. Even integrating an Excel spreadsheet as a data source is now finally a no-brainer.

Negative: Clearly, Webi is not a “design tool”. For example I wasn’t able to show icons for my chart switch instead of the text lables. Putting a background image to the table doesn’t work well if the table is used as input control. When I discussed this prototype with the customer they also mentioned that there are still too many options end users might get confused with (e.g. that there is a “filter” section showing whether the Bar Chart or the Line Chart value is chosen). In Webi you can’t change that. Toolbars, tabs etc. are just there where they are. Live with it or choose a different tool.

Bottom line: Have a look at my Generic Tool Selection Process and the mentioned hands-on test. The above example is exactly what I mean with this: Create a functional prototype in one or two tools and then do a fact based decision depending on your requirements and end user expectations.

Important remark: This post focused on the technical aspect of the dashboard. The visual representation doesn’t yet fit to best practices mentioned in my earlier articels (e.g. about SUCCESS) In a next blog post I will outline how to optimize the existing dashboard in this regard.

Join my teammate Kristof Gramm during sapInsider’s BI2015 conference at Nice (June 16-18): He will go into much more details about how you can use Web Intelligence as a dashboard tool for business users. Use this link to see more infos and save 300€ on your conference registration!

BI Picture Books (BI specific requirements engineering – part 2)

Part 1 of this article you’ll find here.

Illustrate available options using a BI Picture Book

A BI Picture Book is a structured collection of “pictures” aka screenshots of features illustrating one or multiple products. It describes and illustrates the available options in a compact and easy to handle manual. It should help the user to identify what options they have in a given BI front end application.
Referring to scenario A and B above, in an ideal world one would create a BI Picture Book during the initial tool selection process (scenario B). In this context, the BI Picture Book helps to illustrate the available features of the different tools under consideration. Some (or all) of these tools will become “strategic” and therefore the preferred tools to be used during subsequent BI projects. In the same way, the corresponding parts of the original BI Picture Book will also be included in the “daily business” BI Picture Book, which only contains the available options regarding the strategic tool set.
One main characteristic of a BI Picture Book is that we compare feature (or requirement) categories one after another and not a tool (with all its different features) after another tool. This helps to clarify specific differences between the tools for each category.

Figure2

Based on the previously described structure, the BI Picture Book should contain notes which highlight unique features of one tool compared to the rest of available (or evaluated) tools, e.g. a specific chart type which is only available in one tool. On the other hand, one should highlight limitations regarding specific features that are initially “not obvious”, e.g. in cases where the color palette of charts cannot be customized. Another example is to specifically highlight a tool which does not contain an Excel export (because end users might assume that there is an Excel export for every imaginable BI tool, so that they think they do not have to specify this).

How to build a BI Picture Book

Building a BI Picture Book is primarily about taking screenshots and arranging them in a structured manner, e.g. following the seven feature categories introduced above. As with every other project, certain points need to be planned and clarified before you start:

  • What is the primary purpose of the BI Picture Book? This refers to either scenario A) requirements engineering or scenario B), creating a front end tool strategy.
  • Which BI tool vendors are to be taken into consideration? Which concrete tools of these vendors are to be integrated into the BI Picture Book? For scenario A) this is defined by the available strategically defined BI toolset. For scenario B) it depends on the procedure for evaluating and selecting tools for your front end tool strategy.
  • Once you know which tools you want to take screenshots of you need to define which software version to use. Depending on the release cycle of the BI vendor, the software version can make quite a difference regarding available features. Therefore a BI Picture Book is mostly specific to a certain version.
  • For cars, there are tuning shops which provide extra features not offered by the car manufacturer. Similarly, in the BI world, there are many add-on providers who extend the available features of BI products. If such add-ons are already in place, it is important to include their features in the BI Picture Book. Nevertheless, one shouldn’t forget to label features from add-on products specifically as they might be charged additionally.
  • Do not show options which are not applicable in practice, e.g. system wide customizations on a multi-tenant BI platform. An example is customizing the look and feel of the BI portal by modifying the portal’s CSS style sheet. Although, in theory, this option might exist, depending on your organizational and technical setup, to changing the style sheet might not be allowed because many other stakeholders would be affected.

After having answered these questions, you can start: Take whatever screen capture program you like and start taking the screenshots. Use either a tool like Microsoft Powerpoint or Word to collect and layout the screenshot in a meaningful way. Keep an eye on the point that the BI Picture Books’ main characteristic is about comparing a specific feature over multiple tools. Therefore, put the screenshots of a given feature for multiple tools side by side on the same page or slide.
The subsequent paragraphs will illustrate how a concrete BI Picture Book might look. Screenshots are taken from various SAP Business Intelligence front end tools.

1. Content Options

Content options are difficult to illustrate using screenshots regarding scenario A). For scenario B) we can, for example, compare the different available data connectivity options:

Figure4

Connectivity Options in Crystal Reports

Figure3

Connectivity Options in SAP Lumira

2. Navigation & Selection Options

For navigation options outside of information, products typically screenshots of a BI portal are to be taken. This can be either based on a vendor specific portal or your company’s intranet site (or both if end users have a choice and need to decide which one to use).

Figure5

SAP BusinessObjects BI Launchpad

On the other hand, a tool provides navigation and selection features inside information products. We usually take screenshots for at least the following elements:

  • Parameter & Prompts
  • Input Controls
  • Groups / Hierarchy View and Navigation
  • Drill Down features
  • Tabs

Some of these elements are illustrated as follows:

Figure6

Prompts in SAP BusinessObjects WebIntelligence

Figure7

Selectors in SAP BusinessObjects Dashboards (aka Xcelsius)

Figure9

Drill-Down in Web Intelligence

Figure8

Drill-Down in Crystal Reports

The drill-down example, in particular, shows that it is not enough for an end user to simply specify “we need drill-down functionality” as a requirement. End users need to specify requirements in alignment with the different options of drill-down available.

3. Layout Options

Figure10

Excerpt of Chart Picture Book for some SAP BusinessObjects front end tools

We suggest taking screenshots for the following elements:

  • Charts
  • Tables
  • Cross tables
  • Speedometers
  • Maps
  • Conditional formatting

Make sure you list all important features and highlight the unique ones as well as limitations that are not obvious. This helps end users to compare the different options. In some cases, it is important to shed more light on the settings of features such as charts. By way of example, specify if it is possible to change the colors of a pie chart?

4. Functional Options

Next up are functional options, for example export. It is quite simple to find the available options and therefore it is easy for end users to choose from the existing options. It is useless, for example, if you let someone define that he wants a PowerPoint export from a front end tool, if it does not exist. Of course this would be nice, but it is simply not part of the catalog.

Figure11

Different export formats for different tools

Another category of functions is printing. Usually it is not precise enough if an end user specifies he needs to print a document. Giving them a picture book, they can easily find out the available printing options. The BI Picture Book should clarify points such as if you can mix landscape and portrait page mode or choose «Fit to page». Below is our list of typical functions which could be integrated into the BI Picture Book:

  • Export formats
  • Printing options
  • Alerts
  • MS Office Integration
  • Commentary features
  • Multi-language support
  • Search options

 

5. Delivery Options

An up-to-date topic which falls into the category of delivery options is mobile-device compatibility. This is becoming increasingly important at a time when all information should be available independent of the end users geographical location. Depending on the BI vendor and the BI tool itself, mobile devices support can differ considerably. Some serve the information products 1:1 to mobile devices. Others transform existing information products into specific mobile versions, which might have quite a different look and feel compared to the original information product.

Figure13

Crystal Reports document being viewed on a desktop and on an iPad

Figure12

Web Intelligence document being viewed on a desktop and on an iPad

6. Security Options

Figure14

Different security options for Crystal Reports and Web Intelligence documents

As with content options, it is somehow difficult to visualize security options using screenshots in a meaningful way. Try to focus on the comparison aspect between different tools and highlight unique features and limitations that are not obvious. The following example illustrates the available access rights for two different tools. One tool can simply restrict the export functionality in general, whereas the other tool can control the different export formats.

7. Qualitative Options

It is hard to illustrate this category using screenshots. Yet, as indicated in a previous paragraph, you can try to find other illustrations to guide your end users in specifying qualitative requirements.

Final Words

As with my other blog posts this article doesn’t aim to be a complete list of something. A BI Picture Book is neither the only way to define BI specific requirements nor is it enought to define a complete BI front end tool strategy. It shows you a particular idea and it is up to you to apply it in your organization in combination with other appropriate methods.

Please share your experience – I’m looking forward to reading your comment just below!

BI specific requirements engineering – part 1

(Thanks to my co-author Alexander van’t Wout for supporting me writing this blog post!)

Collecting requirements for BI front end tools is often frustrating.

Imagine a sales conversation at your local car dealer. After some small talk you are going to tell the salesperson about your interest in buying a brand new car. Nothing easier than this you might think. But suddenly you are confused. The friendly salesperson asks you if you would please write down exactly what you want and draw a sketch of what you have in mind. As if this was not funny enough he hands a sketch board over to you with a blank sheet of paper on it.

This is how many Business Intelligence (BI) experts deal with their customers today. End users are often left alone to «design» their requirements. A car is a «commercial off-the-shelf product» and therefore very similar to a BI toolset, which is «off-the-shelf software». A common characteristic of both product types is the standardization of features, and therefore a limited set of features. On one hand, this might limit your flexibility; on the other hand, it simplifies the process of requirements’ definition drastically because you do not need to consider each and every detail to build a system.

We can distinguish two major scenarios where a business user community needs to specify requirements for BI front end tools: scenario A) is an organizational environment where the business intelligence software suite is already predefined. This means that for a regular project the project team is not free to choose from all available tools on the market, but only within the limited frame of what is usually called strategic vendors. In most organizations this means no choice at all. Typically, most organizations limit themselves to one or two strategic BI vendors, whereas every vendor provides a suite of tools and therefore provides a choice to project teams.

Scenario B) takes place when a company is about to choose their strategic BI vendors, or when it is about to define a front-end tool strategy based on a given toolset available. The difference to scenario A) is that there are no concrete requirements or previous use cases to do this. Decisions involving, for example, choosing strategic BI vendors, or building a front end tool strategy usually have to be derived from corporate requirements, which may mean some high-level requirements that are influenced by end users only in an indirect way.

In Scenario A, the main task is to map requirements to concrete features and specify detailed requirements (which take into consideration the chosen features). In scenario B, the main task is to get to know multiple tools and multiple tool suites of different BI vendors and make them comparable in an easy and quick way. For both cases, the authors suggest the visual approach of BI Picture Books as an analogy to a car catalog. In subsequent paragraphs, “end user” is used as a synonym for the party who is in charge of defining requirements for the BI front end tools.

Figure 1 Negotiation based on off-the-shelf softwareAs outlined in the introduction, working with business intelligence software is working with off-the-shelf software nowadays. This means that not all imaginable requirements are allowed anymore. In particular in scenario A) end users cannot have all they want, but their requirements need to be aligned with the available features of a given tool set. Still, the first step is collecting business requirements to compare with the technical features of the standard software. This process can be very frustrating for the business user after s/he has noted his requirements on a blank sheet of paper and tried to picture himself using a solution that fits his needs. The necessary negotiations regarding the technical feasibility are more likely a surrender of the business user’s initial requirements.

Therefore, the question that arises is, how could we show the end user in advance which options are available and therefore feasible as a solution to his requirements? To answer this question, we take a look at the automotive sector again.

Today, modern car manufacturers provide web-based car configurators, where customers can “build” their own car. The customers have to walk through several steps, e.g. choosing the color, the wheels, the engine and accessories. We can learn two things from such car configurators: First, guide the end user defining the necessary (and feasible) requirements. Second, provide visual support to the end user showing what different available options look like.

Structure BI front end requirements

To «build» a BI front end solution we identified seven crucial categories which need to be addressed during the requirements’ engineering process. This corresponds to scenario A above. For scenario B one can still use the same categories, but instead of defining requirements along the lines of these categories you can structure the available features and thus make the comparison of the different tools much easier. The following sections will outline the seven categories in more detail:

  1. Content options: In this first step, end users have to roughly define what information products they want to receive in the end, and the approximate content of these products. (The term information product is an umbrella term for all the various BI front end types such as report, statistics, cockpit, dashboard, analysis etc.). For scenario A end users are relatively free to note down everything they want, except for data content, which is a priori not available in the project time frame. For scenario B, the BI expert might list and compare all the available data connectivity options for a certain toolset.
  2. Navigation and selection options: In this second step, the end users need to think about how to navigate to or between the defined information products (e.g. using a folder structure in a given BI portal). Whereas navigation takes place outside information products, the selecting interactively data usually takes place inside an information product. In either case, the available options are limited by the software.
  3. Layout options: This third step is about collecting requirements regarding page layout, chart and table options. A common pitfall for end users is to assume that BI front ends are either like Microsoft Excel or Word. Trivial looking items such as a table of contents or some specific chart options which are available in Office products might not be available in the BI front end tools. In addition, if the end users’ organization adheres to notation standard rules such as the International Business Communication Standards (IBCS; http://www.ibcs-a.org/) this might further restrict the allowed layout options, in particular for charts and tables.
  4. Functional options: Whereas the third step addressed more of the static elements in a report, this fourth step is about defining requirements for the functions of a BI front end solution (in addition to the functions already defined in the navigation and selection category). Typical examples of functions are the usage of (interactive) alerts, export to various formats, printing, search, multi-language options, commentary features and so on. This category depends even more on the available features of a given BI front end tool than the previous ones.
  5. Delivery options: Step number five addresses how an information product is delivered to end users. Besides defining the delivery channel (e.g. by web browser, mobile, email) one must define how and when the report is refreshed. One possible option is viewing an information product on demand (the refresh is triggered directly by an end user). Scheduling the information product to be run at night is another option. Scheduling can be further divided into single information product scheduling and information product bursting where, based on one main product, a personalized instance of the information product is created and usually distributed to the specific recipient. Requirements for this category’s “delivery options” usually depend not only  on the front end tool itself, but also on the underlying BI platform system or available third party extensions, e.g. for bursting.
  6. Security options: Finally, end users have to think about security. In the context of BI front end solutions, there are two main security aspects to consider: Access restrictions on information product level, on one hand, and data level security, on the other hand. For the first aspect, an end user has to define who and in which role is allowed to see the report, and which features should be available, e.g. one user might access and refresh the report, but must not export the report. Similar to the previous category of delivery options, the access restrictions are highly dependent on the underlying BI platform and the available security options.
    The the second aspect of data level security is either addressed on database level or some kind of semantic layer of the BI front end tool. Again, the available technology decides upon available options.
  7. Qualitative options: Last but not least, this final category of options summarizes requirements of a qualitative nature. This includes elements such performance or usability requirements. For this category, it is more difficult to define requirements allowed. Nevertheless, one can guide the end user in defining realistic requirements, e.g. instead of asking an end user to define the maximum report refresh duration, provide predefined performance classes such as “< 30 sec”, “30 – 60 sec” and so on. This way an end user won’t define an unrealistic value like “every report must be refreshable below 3 seconds”.

Using these seven categories to either structure your end user requirements (scenario A) or structure and therefore compare the available features of multiple tools in an evaluation process (scenario B), you will be able to catch at least 80% of typical BI front end requirements. Depending on the concrete project, you will most probably have to extend the list with your own items. Still, the basic principle of guiding end users whilst defining requirements remains the same.

Another way of structuring the requirements using the seven categories is to outline dependencies. Similar to web based car configurators, there are certain requirements in a given category which have a direct impact on the allowed (or needed) requirements in another category, e.g. defining a delivery channel using mobile devices will most probably have an impact on the desired (or available) layout options, as well as certain security options. In such a case, one needs to cycle back or forwards in the categories and adjust previously defined requirements. In sum, the typical procedure will be to run through the seven categories in an iterative way starting with a rough idea of requirements in the first round and refining requirements (also considering newly discovered dependencies) in subsequent rounds.

However, there is one question left: What does a non-technical user understand by these categories? A simple feature list is usually not enough, in particular for people whose daily business is not building a BI front end solution. The authors suggest building and using a visual catalog of available options, just like the car-configurator. We call this a BI Picture Book. (More about this in part 2)

The Generic BI front-end Tool Selection Process

Finally – I’m blogging again. Time flew by and “my life as a BI consultant” kept me busy with migrations from Oracle to Teradata or from BO XI 3.1 SP2 to SP6. Or maybe you’ve also heard about our BusinessObjects Arbeitskreis (can be translated as “workshop”), I’d call this the “only BOBJ dedicated conference in Europe”: www.boak.ch It was a pleasure to build and execute an interesting agenda for our participants as well as welcoming great people like Jason Rose, Mani Srini, Saurabh Abhyankar, Mico Yuk or Carsten Bange. I also had the pleasure to do the closing key note during BOAK. It was around BOBJ front-end Tool Selection. I used this opportunity to further develop a generic yet simple method how to approach the frontend tool selection. The basic idea I formulated already in my last blog post back in April 2013. But I agree with some of the comment writers that this first rule of thumb was maybe to specific to be applied in all situations. Therefore let me share what I think is a more generic approach – by the way you can use this of course for other BI vendors and not only SAP BusinessObjects (the following illustrations are just examples – the listed and selected tools don’t have any concrete meaning!):

PART A: Preparation
Step 1: List all available BI front-ends

The first thing to do is to get an overview what BI front-end tools are available in general from a specific BI vendor. As I’m a big fan of working interactively with people, e.g. gathering in front of a whiteboard or flipchart, I suggest you write down product names to sticky notes and post them on the flipchart:

Step01

Step 2: Divide tools into “in scope” and “out of scope”

Depending on your environments you can do a first, yet very rough tool selection and divide the intially listed tools (see step 1) into two groups:

“Out of Scope”: This is maybe easier to start with: If you don’t have SAP BW as a source, you can eliminate all tools working with BW only. Or if your security policy prohibits the use of Flash, maybe Explorer or Xcelsius are out of scope a priori.

“In scope”: All the tools which are not out of scope.

Step02

PART B: Build a working hypothesis
Step 3: Select the tool which covers most of your requirements

This step assumes that you have quite a clear understanding of your business needs to be solved with a BI solution. I’m fully aware that this is often not the case. But to keep the basic process for tool selection as simple as possible I won’t go into details about how to find the “right” requirements. Not yet, but maybe in a further blog post.

Anyway, let’s represent the total amount of requirements symbolically as a circle. Now think about which tool has the broadest coverage of your requirements. Take the sticky note and put it onto the circle. Please be aware that this is only a “working hypothesis” – trust your gut feeling – you can always revise your tool choice later on in the process.

Step03

Step 4: Select the tool which covers most of your left over requirements

Repeat step 3 and think about the tool which might cover most of your left over requirements and put the corresponding sticky note into the circle.

Step04

PART C: Validate your working hypothesis

Nothing is more annoying than “strategies” which exist only on paper but cannot be transformed into reality. Keep in mind that you’ve just built what I call a working hypothesis. Now you should validate it and test against the reality. It will either prove your gut feeling regarding tool selection was right or wrong.

So far you have selected two tools. They represent a selection hierarchy. For any given or new requirement (or group of requirements) you should now do a hands-on test. Always start with the first chosen tool: How well can you implement the requirement? Does the implementation fullfil your expectations? What do your end users think about it? Do they like it? For now I leave it up to you to define the “success criteria” to decide in which case a prototypic implementation passes the hands-on test and when not. Anyway, if the implementation passes the hands-on test, you should go with tool #1 for this kind of requirement now and in future situations.

If the implementation fails the hands-on test for tool #1, go forward to tool #2 and do a hands-on test again with this one. Hopefully your prototypic implementation now passes the test and you can define to go with tool #2 for this kind of requirement now and in future situations.

Step05

What happens if a prototypic implementation fails the second hands-on test too? There are three alternatives:

  • If you fail the second hands-on test for let’s say <10% of requirements, you should think about a specific solution for these obviously very special requirements: Mabye you simply continue to solve these requirements “manually” in Excel? Maybe you need to buy a niche tool for it? Just find a pragmatic solution case wise.
  • If you fail the second hands-on test for let’s say <30% of requirements, you should think about adding a third tool to your tool selection hierarchy.
  • If you fail the second hands-on test for let’s say <60% of requirements, you should definitely revise your working hypothesis and play through another tool selection hierarchy.

Closing Notes

I’m fully aware that the outlined process is simplistic. That’s why you might not be able to use it “as is” in your current frontend tool selection project. But it shows the basic idea (namely to build a tool selection hierarchy and validate it with hands-on tests) on how to narrow down the number of useful tools in a given context – and it is your job to apply respectively adapt it to your environment. Let me know what you think about it – and how it works in your environment!