In Use Cases, Visualization

Business isn’t empathetic. Let’s face it, it just isn’t. For many of us, business happens inside a building lit by the lingering fluorescence of a good weekend. We are wizards at piloting Excel and chanting quantitative mantras. We are great at drill downs and analyzing historical data. And if we are lucky we will make one or two really good decisions a quarter, based on some column charts and a lot of intuition.

The rest of it is a crap shoot. While discussion groups on LinkedIn are singing the praises of ‘Business Intelligence’ I can’t help but wonder if something is missing from the equation. I’d posit that BI is a solution looking for an answer. The reason is that BI happens in the vacuum of the past and through the lens of equations void of real-world context.

As a user experience (UX) designer, I was taught to ask empathetic questions about the situation surrounding a problem. Algorithms are useful but they don’t always adapt themselves to the current context. Good UX means asking, “What is happening in the situation around me? What is the problem right now? What do my team members at work care about? What will my child want for their birthday? Where will I park downtown tomorrow night?” These questions are everyone’s concerns. They are also business problems, every one of them. If you fail at one the others suffer because everything is connected, not sliced and diced.

To answer questions with empathy, you need real-time awareness of conditions plus insight from the past to predict the future. What is true now may not be in 3 minutes, 3 hours or 3 days. BI is a measure of the past. It is two-dimensional and quantitatively vapid. It isn’t asking raw questions.

Situational intelligence, on the other hand, strives to analyze and present what the conditions are across the spectrum of time. It seeks context and not just quantity. In this way, it provides empathy to users solving a problem.

As an example of empathy and situational intelligence, consider the problem of planning a trip to a congested urban area during rush hour. Some people want to save money on their trip, some want to save time, and some want to balance both. Other people don’t care how long it will take or how much they will need to spend, as long as they are safe.

This simple traffic dashboard speaks to all or just some of these concerns. It requires only 3 APIs and connections to a handful of databases (Google real-time and typical traffic, Trulia crime statistics, video feeds from web cameras). It gracefully accommodates the 3 Vs of our Big Data world: volume, variety, velocity.

Traffic dashboard

But it also has empathy. The dashboard adjusts throughout time and at a moment’s notice to the concerns of the user based on cost, time or safety in the past, present or future.

BI is about a process. Situational Intelligence is about people and their unfolding story.

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