KISS Your Big Data UI

It’s been so hard to blog lately. Mostly because I don’t have time to edit my posts. I guess if I wait until I have time to wordsmith better posts I’ll never post, so here is one that has been sitting on the shelf in all of its unedited glory.

What Qualifies A Developer To Talk About UI Design

I’m not qualified, I am not a designer. I haven’t done a lot of posts on the subject of UI design, but with the big push to big data, real-time streaming analytics, and IoT, I thought that I’d put a little thought into things that I would think about when designing a UI for them.

I started my tech career designing websites and desktop applications for a few years. Although my customers were happy with my UI designs, it’s not my thing and I don’t think I am good at it. Yet, I have been on many application teams and have had to work with many awesome designers. I believe that I can speak on UI design considerations from my 16 years of doing this. What I have to say is not gospel. I haven’t searched this stuff out on Bing like I do with engineering problems. Many UI and usability guru’s will probably crush me if they read this, but I’m not totally clueless when it comes to UI’s.

A Dashboard for Big Data

When dealing with designing an administrator’s dashboard for IoT device sensor data or maybe any big data application you should probably focus on making the right exceptional conditions highly visible and showing actionable data trends with the ability to drill down for more information and take necessary actions. The most important thing is to alert users of potential problems and anomalies that may indicate pending problems while providing some facility for taking action to investigate and mitigate problems. Just as important is being able to identify when something is going well because you want to learn from the successes to possibly apply the knowledge to other areas.

The UI should assist the user in being proactive in addressing problems. This is true if you have one device sending sensor data or a fleet of them. Granted there are differences in design consideration when you start scaling to 100s or 1000s of devices, but depending on the goal of the device, the basic premise is you want to make certain conditions identified by sensors up front and in your face.

KISS Your UI

When you have 100s of messages flowing from sensors compounded by multiple devices, a pageable grid of a hundred recent sensor messages on the first screen of the UI is useless, unless you are the type that enjoys trying to spot changes while scrolling the Matrix. The dashboard should lead you to taking action when problems exist, help you learn from successes, and give you peace of mind that everything is OK. The UI should help you identify potential areas to make improvements by uncovering weaknesses. This should be done without all of the noise from the mountain of data being held by the system.

If you could only show one thing on the UI what would it be. Maybe an alert box showing the number of critical exceptions triggered with a link to view more information? Start with that one thing and expand on it to provide the user with what they need. Big data UI is not a CRUD or basic application UI. It more closely related with what one might do for a reporting engine UI, but even that is a stretch. I am sure there are awesome blogs and books out there that speak on this subject, but many of the UIs I have been seeing were designed by people that didn’t get a subscription or something.

Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) is as much a design principle as it is in software engineering. Stop making people work to understand thousands of data points when it should be the job of the UI designer to simplify it for them.

Example

Say you have a storage company. You have hundreds of garages and you want to deploy sensors to each garage and allow your customers to monitor them. The sensor will give you data on the door being open or closed, temperature, and relative humidity in the unit. The devices send messages every 5 minutes, 7,200 messages a day.

Your customers can opt in to SMS and email alerts on each data point. Some will only want open/close alerts. Some may have items that are sensitive to heat and humidity and they will want alerts when temperature or humidity cross some threshold.

Your customers also get access to a website that allows them to modify alerts and view a dashboard that allows them to investigate and query all of the sensor data. What good would it be to have a grid on the dashboard showing sensor data streaming into the UI every 5 minutes, 7,200 times a day. Why burden them with even having to see the data. Most customers will never have a breach. Temp and humidity sensitive customers will probably have an environment controlled unit that rarely triggers and alert. What does streaming data on the initial dashboard screen give them… nothing.

The only thing most of the customers want to know is has someone opened my unit or if the temp is fluctuating. The customer wants us to simplify all of that data into a simple digestible UI that addresses their concerns and helps them cure any pain they may experience when an alert is triggered.

There may be users that need to dig into the data to investigate, but normal daily usage is focused more on alerts and trends. Seeing all of the data is not the main concern and the data is only available if they click a link to dig into it. The UI is kept clean, not overwhelming, and focused on the needs of the majority of customers.

This is fictional and if no one is doing it, I probably just gave away a new app idea. This is the reason that IoT is hot, its wide open for dreamers. The gist of the example is there is so much data to contend with on these types of projects you have to hide it and simplify the UI so that you aren’t overwhelming the user.

Consumer Apps Are Not the Only Game In Town

Additionally, you have to take into account whether the UI is for consumers or businesses. Making things pretty for consumers can help to differentiate an app in the consumer market, but the time to make things pretty for B2B or enterprise is better served on improving usability and the feature set. I am not saying that businesses don’t care about aesthetics, but unless they are reselling your UI to consumers it’s usually not the most important thing. For both audiences usability is very important, but usability doesn’t mean using the latest UI tricks, fancy graphics, fussing over fonts and colors just for the sake of having them. Everything should be strategically implemented to help usability.

This is especially true for large enterprises. I have seen many very successful and useful apps in the enterprise that were nothing more than a set of simple colored boxes with links to take certain actions and drill down into more information. So, you not only have to take into account the amount of data being managed in the UI, but the user doing the managing. Know your audience and build the UI to their needs. Leave out all the gradients and curves and UI tricks until you have a functional UI that serves the core needs of the business and leave polish for later iterations. Focus first on how to reduce the mountain of data into bite sized actionable chunks.

Conclusion

So, Keep It Simple Stupid! Hide the data, show alerts and trends, allow drill down into the data for investigation, provide a way to take action, leave polish for later iterations.

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