Human-centered Design Paves the Way for Community-driven Analytics and Business Intelligence

Julie Lemieux 

VP of User Experience & Design, Sigma

At Sigma Computing, we envision a world where everyone can do meaningful analyses on real-time data. We believe that data has the power to fuel innovation, drive progress, and accelerate success, which is why we have made it our mission to deliver an analytics and business intelligence (A&BI) platform that makes it easy for anyone to analyze real-time data, discover new insights, and make the best decisions possible in each moment.

Simultaneously, we want to free data teams and analysts from report factory hell so they can leverage the power of data for complex, innovative, and fulfilling initiatives that propel individuals, organizations, and communities toward a better future.

To achieve this mission, we believe everyone at an organization – from the data team to domain experts and business leaders – must all be able to work together in a single platform. Community-driven A&BI ensures the data agenda maps to business objectives, allows everyone to apply their expertise to analysis, and accelerates time to insight.

Design plays a critical role in creating something that is powerful enough to satisfy the needs of the data team, yet easy enough for knowledge workers to use. It requires a tremendous amount of empathy to design any product, but even more so when your users come from such a wide variety of backgrounds and experience levels. User experience and interface designers are really in the business of understanding people prior to them even using a product.

My team’s goal is to design an A&BI platform that embraces people as they are and teaches them the skills they need to succeed at exploring, analyzing, and sharing data. We know that people are smart, curious, and capable professionals and it is our job to provide a tool that ensures those parts of them shine.

I was actually hired at Sigma, in part, for the human-centric approach to product design that I have honed over the course of my 20+ year career. I recently sat down with Ben Newton on the Masters of Data podcast (virtually, of course) to share a little about what human-centered design is, how it relates to data, and where things stand in the ongoing effort to democratize data.

Human-centered design theory

Human-centered design is an approach to problem-solving that takes the human perspective into consideration in all steps of the process. Designers must empathize deeply with everyone’s inherent humanity: the needs, feelings, and challenges that people encounter, not only when using a product, but what may be preventing them from engaging fully and actualizing their needs and objectives.

Part of this process involves asking people a lot of questions about their feelings. It is imperative that designers know what people are scared of, where they are resistant, and what’s fundamentally difficult so we, as designers, can mindfully address these challenges in our designs.

Theory becomes reality in Sigma

At Sigma, this means finding solutions to these human challenges and ensuring Sigma delivers value to its users from day one. More specifically, figuring out how to help people that are accustomed to using Excel and Google Sheets to analyze data transition to the Sigma Spreadsheet with as little friction as possible. And there are a lot of spreadsheet users out there: 93% of knowledge workers and 88% of data experts still turn to either Excel or Google Sheets to analyze data.

To start, we want every knowledge worker to be able to learn the basics of what they need to do in Sigma to be successful at their specific tasks. Then, as their skill level increases, they can begin to address larger departmental outcomes and ultimately their own higher-order goals.

Getting the product to a point where the average knowledge worker can instantly feel comfortable requires an enormous amount of research. We need to understand and empathize with our users so we can help them move past blockers–whether psychological or skillset-related–when it comes to working with data. Without empathy, we cannot design a platform that empowers their pursuit of insights.

Based on the extensive research we have done and continue to do, we’ve discovered that the most common barriers preventing knowledge workers from diving into the world of analytics and business intelligence are:

  • No access to data beyond the dashboards and reports in individual tools or those provided to them by analysts;
  • Not knowing where data is or which is the “right” data to use;
  • Lack of technical skills and statistical or analytical knowledge;
  • Not knowing how to start an analysis;
  • Not knowing how to shape the data to reveal insights;
  • Not knowing how to join discrete data sources;
  • Fear of “breaking” the data, overwriting, or otherwise “messing up” the warehouse or database;
  • Not knowing which steps to take to answer bigger picture business questions;
  • Inability to invoke data exploration tasks to help satisfy “what if” questions beyond what pre-made reports and dashboards contain.

As designers, our job is to address these barriers. This is a task that is never complete either. We are constantly evolving Sigma and asking our customers: “How can we help you do even more?”

Self-service depends on a conscious cultural shift

Companies are making “data-driven” a top-down mandate, but many knowledge workers have been left in the cold. They don’t have access to data or the tools – beyond Excel or Google Sheets – needed to analyze it. The best way to make the data-driven dream a reality is to finally make good on the self-service A&BI promise, which is precisely what Sigma has done. Now we have our sights set on helping our customers through the conscious cultural shift that stands in the way of self-service coming to fruition.

True self-service starts with granting knowledge workers with governed access to data. This may be challenging for the keepers of data, especially those that have lived through the wild west days, but providing access doesn’t have to mean losing control. Sigma offers a full suite of security features that ensure data remains in the cloud data warehouse and admins can manage access roles and permissions, and keep sensitive information safe.

Data insights helps bring everyone into the conversation.

Listen to the Masters of Data podcast

The next step to making true self-service a reality is providing a single tool that both technical and non-technical teams can use. Knowledge workers need a tool that leverages their existing skills to facilitate their exploration of Big Data, like the ubiquitous spreadsheet. As designers, our job is to map old-world behaviors and metaphors from Excel and Google Sheets into the Sigma Spreadsheet, except better and faster, to meet knowledge workers where they are skill-wise, while still giving them access to Big Data – something that is impossible to do with Excel or Google Sheets.

Data experts need to support knowledge workers as they become more comfortable and confident working with data. They can do this by helping them dip their toes into data exploration with a dynamic dashboard that allows them to open up the underlying data sources and explore the data for themselves. Data teams should endorse quality datasets and remove bad ones. They must prepare a well-labeled and searchable library of verified, reusable data sources of the most relevant data for each team to easily leverage as data literacy increases, confidence builds, and they’re ready to deepen their engagement with data.

Finally, knowledge workers also need the data experts to provide specific definitions and common calculations for metrics to keep everyone on the same page, reducing “wrong” or different answers between teams. Both the library of verified Sigma Datasets and standardized formulas greatly reduces the number of times someone needs to “reinvent the wheel,” saving time and resources.

All of this is easier said than done. Achieving true self-service will require knowledge workers to embrace data more than ever before and data teams will need to shift to empowering their business team counterparts rather than serving them. Just as all knowledge workers are expected to be reasonably proficient at typing, nearly everyone will need to have some level of data literacy in the rapidly approaching “future of work.” That is not to say that analysts will join typists in the category of professions that no longer exists. Certainly not. The analyst role will merely evolve alongside knowledge workers. True self-service will allow analysts to focus on higher-value initiatives, which leads to greater job satisfaction.

True self-service paves the way for community-driven analytics and business intelligence

There is a synergistic relationship between data experts and knowledge workers. Their individual successes are dependent on the success of the other and both groups are more successful when knowledge workers are truly in self-service mode. Sigma meets the unique needs of both groups, bringing them together and empowering everyone to do their jobs exponentially faster than ever before.

While others in our space see AI as the future of A&BI, we believe that there is no substitute for humans – their knowledge, experience, and empathy – and they must remain at the center of data analysis. We believe the future of analytics and business intelligence is a community-driven approach where everyone gets to apply their unique expertise to the data agenda and analysis process firsthand and have access to all the information they need to make the best possible decision in any given moment. That is the data-driven dream realized.

For more on data democratization, human-centered design, and so much more, make sure to listen to my interview on Masters of Data, which aired today.