Embedded analytics and reporting features have become table stakes for software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers. More and more software end users expect their SaaS web applications not only to house and organize their data, but also to make it available for exploration and analysis.
SaaS vendors confronted with this demand, however, find themselves in a bit of a bind: they need to offer self-service (or “ad hoc”) reporting software to stay competitive but are concerned about finding a tool capable of accommodating a wide variety of users with different skills and functions. Will the less tech-savvy among them find the tool intimidating? Will business analysts grow frustrated with its limited capability? Or worse: will the tool’s poor user experience negatively impact the SaaS brand and become an expensive burden?
These are understandable concerns, but it is in fact possible to cater to a range of ad hoc BI users. The trick is to hand the right set of tools to the right groups of users based on their needs. By evaluating your customers and giving each of them tools targeted to their purposes and technical ability, you’ll avoid overwhelming nontechnical executives or underwhelming experienced analysts.
To do so, you need a BI solution that lets you control who may access which tools.
Exago BI, for example, offers two types of reporting tools. ExpressView is the more basic ad hoc report designer and was designed for BI novices whereas Advanced Reports are, as the name suggests, intended for more in-depth reporting use cases. Each tool, however, has a host of reporting capabilities that may be turned on or off for individual users, allowing SaaS vendors to further customize the experience.
No two SaaS vendors deploy Exago BI’s ad hoc reporting tools the same way. Some use ExpressView as a training ground with the goal of eventually transitioning everyone to Advanced Reports. (Those taking this approach differ in when and how to effect the transition.) Others only expose ExpressView because their users’ needs are basic to begin with. Still others only expose Advanced Reports, introducing its components in stages. Exago BI’s modularity makes it possible for SaaS vendors to take the precise approach that works best for them and their users.
So what kinds of features and capabilities should you look for in ad hoc reporting tools? Let’s explore the needs and expectations of the two main user groups.
Essential Tools for the Non-Technical User
Many of your customers will only be supplementing the report library you provide them with ad hoc reports, not building their entire report library from scratch. If you know your customers are largely nontechnical but need a few complex reports, you can provide those up front and give them access to simpler tools to build their own ad hoc reports.
Customers who fall into the casual user groups (categorized by Eckerson as data consumers and data explorers) benefit from simpler, more approachable tools. Casual user groups may include nontechnical executives, managers, sales and marketing team members, and administrative staff.
For these users, reporting tools like Exago BI’s ExpressView Designer that provide all of the reporting essentials without being overwhelming or intimidating are key. Users can get the insights they need without becoming confused or overwhelmed by extraneous capabilities.
Beginner-friendly ad hoc reporting tools should:
- Be as WYSIWYG as possible. The more literal the design experience, the better. In BI, this means representing individual real-time data points visually so that users know what they see is what they’ll get when they run the report.
- Facilitate drag-and-drop design. Simply clicking to move a data field or report element is more intuitive than using a menu.
- Allow for formula-free aggregation. Saving usering from having to learn formula syntax to do something as simple as add a column of values goes a long way toward improving adoption rates.
- Offer best-guess charting. When users add a chart to an existing report, the tool should generate a chart based on the report’s design and allow the user to make any necessary changes once they have that starting point.
- Provide streamlined functionality. Reporting basics such as sorting and filtering should be simple and satisfy 80% of use cases. A user might, for example, be able to create compound filters (e.g., show only records for cars that are 2020 models AND Toyotas) but not have access to more complex logic (e.g., show cars that are either 2020 AND Toyotas OR show cars that are either hatchbacks AND white in color).
Feature-rich tools like the Advanced Reports aren’t without their conveniences but are ultimately designed to furnish more complex use cases.
Essential Tools for the Power User
Your BI power users, while in the minority, are an important part of the self-service ecosystem, as they are often charged with furnishing other less technical users with complex reports. Their needs, therefore, are an extension of their company’s needs.
Power users’ needs are often so specific that usability features like best-guess charting (which in these more niche cases may tend to guess wrong) become nuisances. For this reason, advanced ad hoc reporting tools should minimize algorithmic “automagicry” and maximize control, even if it steepens the learning curve.
Exago BI’s Advanced Report designer is ideal for experienced BI users and data analysts who need to add complex formulas, nested groups, pivot tables, charts with drilldowns, and other more nuanced reporting elements. All essential features should be more configurable and give the author control over how a third party consumes the report.
To help illustrate what “more configurable” means in concrete terms, here’s a table comparing ExpressView and the Advanced Reports designer with respect to some core features. This is by no means an exhaustive comparison, but it offers a rough sketch.
|UI||Drag-and-drop heavy. Data fields expanded to show individual records.||Grid separated into specialized sections. Some drag-and-drop functionality. Records only visible after the report is run.|
|Styling||Some report elements (e.g., cell border, row height, chart positioning) are styled automatically.||Pixel-perfect. All styling customizable.|
|Calculations||Column totals (sum, average, min, max, count, etc.) calculable without formula syntax.||All calculations made using formula syntax. Cell references enabled.|
|Charts||First chart automatically generated based on report style.||Charts are fully customizable and may source a variety of data layouts. Advanced charting attributes available.|
|Grouping||Grouping logic performed automatically. Groups may be either expanded or collapsed.||Supports grouping on a field not displayed for that group in the report output. Groups may be made visible or left implicit. Complex nesting of groups supported.|
|Sorting||Columns may be sorted in either ascending or descending order. Users may prioritize sorts.||Users may sort on a formula.|
|Filtering||Supports simple filter logic.||Supports complex filter logic, filtering on a formula, filter functions, and interactive filtering.|
|Data models||Created automatically based on administrative settings.||Created automatically based on administrative settings and user preferences. Users may further customize the initial model.|
|Drilldowns||Unsupported.||Supported and fully customizable. Drill into other reports or dashboards; define the inter-report relationship.|
|Pivot tables||Unsupported.||Supported. Pivot tables may be standalone or part of a larger report.|
|Document templates||Unsupported.||Report output may be used to populate PDF, Word, or Excel documents.|
If nothing else, we hope you walk away from this article knowing that:
- Ad hoc reporting solutions are as varied and diverse as their users.
- Modularity and configurability are critical to a successful self-service BI reporting program.
- No two strategies for deploying self-service BI are the same. You have to understand and cater to your unique user base.
If you want to see Exago BI in action but aren’t quite ready to get in touch about a demo, we offer live overview webinars every two weeks. Sign up to explore the ad hoc reporting tools above!