Enhancing the User Experience - InformationWeek

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3/29/2005
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Enhancing the User Experience

MicroStrategy 8 adds user appeal to an IT favorite.

Version 8 of MicroStrategy's BI platform builds on an already solid architecture with more of the bells and whistles that business users love. The latest version includes a number of innovations that address past limitations, making the software easier to use, giving it access to a broader range of data and enhancing it with predictive analytics.

PROS
•Tightly integrated query, reporting and analysis with common security, metadata and server architecture
•Excellent Microsoft Office integration
•More intuitive, visually appealing user interface
•Ability to perform complex analysis enhanced with integrated data mining
CONS
•Dashboarding is basic, with no widgets or rules (limited to highly formatted documents)
•Scheduling, through Narrowcast Server, is complicated and less flexible than competitors'
•Graph creation is cumbersome
•Á la carte and CPU clockspeed pricing is frustrating customers
MicroStrategy has often sold its suite on its technical merits, and rightfully so. Whereas integration between disparate query, reporting and OLAP interfaces may challenge some BI companies, MicroStrategy's ROLAP architecture makes integration a nonissue. Another technical distinction, the object-oriented nature of MicroStrategy's business view (which MicroStrategy calls a "project" but which some might recognize better as a semantic layer or metadata layer), promotes reusability. Reuse is important to report authors because they want to build fewer reports, faster, to meet diverse user requirements.

While such technical merits are music to IT's ears, they're a dirge to business users, who want ease of use, buttons, drag and drop and traffic lights. If a BI tool isn't easy to use, it quickly becomes shelfware. If it's not visually appealing, it engages analysts and power users only. Earlier versions of MicroStrategy lacked intuitiveness and user appeal. As one customer phrased it, "MicroStrategy isn't as easy to use as other BI tools, but it's easier to administer." MicroStrategy 8 changes that.

The screen capture below shows the revamped interface with Windows-like buttons. From a zero-footprint browser, I easily swapped the years from columns to rows via drag and drop or by clicking a button on the toolbar. By rolling the mouse over any button in the toolbar, you can see a description of the button's purpose. Users will like the new multilevel "Undo" button, a capability missing from version 7.5.

The toolbar is automatically personalized according to the user's security profile. If a user isn't authorized to insert new metrics into a report, the button for that function doesn't appear on the toolbar. This feature frees companies from the age-old trade-off between empowering users and not overwhelming them.

screen capture
MicroStrategy 8 includes a revamped interface that is more intuative and appealing to mainstream business users.

Presentation-Quality Reports

MicroStrategy has two main report types: grid/graph views or presentation-quality documents. The latter capability first became available when MicroStrategy released Report Services 7.5 in November 2003. Again promoting reusability, Report Services uses existing grids and graphs to create a formatted document, as shown in the screen capture below.

Report Services 7.5 was a breakthrough for MicroStrategy but it lagged behind the industry. Documents created in Report Services 7.5 had to be authored in the desktop because they couldn't be created over the Web. Static PDF was the only document format choice. With Report Services 8, users can now create these highly formatted documents via the Web; output is to PDF, HTML and spreadsheets; and the reports are interactive.

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