How mid-market companies can make the most of data visualisation

Data is incredibly valuable - but it can also be a significant overhead if not put to use. Making the most of it requires a product mindset and willingness to iterate according to Kabalan Gaspard, Customer Engineering Manager at the data analytics division of Google Cloud. He shared his experience with the Inflexion portfolio.

Data is the new oil. It is hugely valuable, but just like oil can be costly to store and manage if left unused. Business intelligence and data visualisation is one way to take action and most often the best and quickest path to business impact.

Business intelligence and data visualisation are powerful tools to achieve business impact quickly. However, many companies fall short by seeing data visualisation as a simple reporting tool rather than as a product to sell internally and externally. “Companies should think about data visualisations and dashboards as tools, each with a lifecycle like any other product a company might build,” Kabalan says.

So what does building great data visualisation mean? According to Kabalan, it means focusing on value and customers. “Though a dashboard usually pops to mind, the actual spectrum of what companies do with data visualisation is quite wide.” He explains a range of possibilities from simple indicators on one end to full custom-built data application at the other end. The most visually appealing options provide the best user experience, but they also require the longest time to market – and in some cases users just want to see a simple pane.

“If it’s visually unappealing, the valuable data is lost since the user isn’t drawn to it. The other way is a great-looking dashboard but with too little information and so it doesn’t help us to improve things.” He admits that certain use cases lend themselves best to old-fashioned Excel, namely when big tables are involved. In Kabalan’s words, “You don’t need to shoehorn data visualisations where you don’t really need them”. Ultimately, different user personas like seeing data in different mediums and formats.

Building a data product for external audiences

Building a data product for external audiences is becoming increasingly popular. Over the last five years, companies have been using analytics not only for internal purposes but also for serving insights to their own customers. “This is the big revolution that has been happening in data and analytics in the past few years,” Kabalan says, pointing to Spotify as an example of a B2C business feeding customers with their own data.

In the B2B space, companies like Spire in the shipping and logistics space and Fox in sport have created effective data products for their customers and suppliers.

“The most advanced companies are finding ways to generate a new revenue stream from their data products,” Kabalan explains. For instance, global retailer Carrefour has data of all sales of its major suppliers in their stores. They realised that their suppliers wanted to know more than just how their own products were selling, for example they were keen to know their market share and the demographics of their customers. As a result, Carrefour launched a dedicated data product based on Google's Looker. The suppliers are willing to pay for these insights, which are based on data from over 1,500 supermarkets worldwide. “While selling aggregated data back to clients seems obvious now, it’s only recently that big retailers are launching these offerings and monetising them,” Kabalan says.

Real-time data is becoming an expectation rather than a luxury on dashboards. Many companies use products like BigQuery and Looker to create their analytics portals with (near) real-time insights and inbuilt A/B testing. Coinbase, a cryptocurrency buying and trading platform, has built a visually simple product containing useful information, including a live indicator at the bottom displaying how many people are selling versus buying. When A/B tested, this indicator was identified as the reason behind significantly higher transaction volume on Coinbase’s website. 

Thinking two steps ahead: product mindset

Data visualisation dashboards do not only have to be beautiful but must be useful to end users in order to deliver real value, according to Jan Beitner, Assistant Director at Inflexion. Moving to a product mindset is the key to achieving this ambition. This means considering user needs carefully and building products that are easy-to-use and visually appealing.  “The audience for your dashboards or data products could be external suppliers and customers or internal sales and operation teams,” Jan says. “These visualizations will be very different from dashboards for your highly data-literate finance team.” Involving users from day one is very important.

The most valuable data visualisations are thought of and devised as a product. “If you’re building a data dashboard as a product, you need to think of yourself as a product manager and so need to understand how your users are using your data,” Kabalan points out, suggesting firms choose a visualisation tool that allows visibility on users’ activity, including A/B testing to assess if you are developing in the wrong or right direction. “A/B testing is an effort in and of itself which isn’t easily done, so it’s important to build the data product on an infrastructure that gives you this out of the box,” Kabalan says.

The stakes are higher when serving data to external versus internal users.  “Monitoring users’ behaviour is even more important when building for external users because it’s part of your brand as a company,” Kabalan stresses.

It’s clear that data visualisation is one of many opportunities which is best embraced by thinking of the end users first, and iterating to ensure you make the most of this tool.

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