Best practices for mobile reporting

27 February 2017

DJ Adams

DJ Adams

Principal Consultant & Mobile, UX and Development Centre of Excellence Lead

To put together a mobile reporting solution, there's a lot to consider. In this post, we show you how to start off and remain on the right track to deliver a solution that really works for your users.

Best practices in any technical endeavour apply to each and every stage and building a mobile reporting solution is no exception. Here, in Bluefin's Mobility, User Experience and Development Centre of Excellence (MUD CoE for short!) we find it useful to align our thinking with the flow mantra that SAP have popularised: Discover, Design, Develop, Deliver. (There's also a fifth "D", but you can read about that in another post: Debugging SAP Fiori apps - the fifth "D".) 

Here are some best practices for you to consider when contemplating a mobile reporting solution, organised by the stages in that flow. Whether it's adopting a pre-built solution or rolling your own, these principles will keep you on the right track. 

Discover 

If you're going to make big decisions, make them up front, in the Discover phase. And if you're going to change your mind, it's least costly to do it at this stage. You haven't committed yet and therefore have the ultimate luxuries in decision making - the most time and the least pressure. 

#1 Ask the hard questions 

DJ-Best-Design-Practices-Content.jpgBack in the late 1980's I was on an SAP system migration project (from R/2 to R/3) and a business analyst friend related to me some of the results of the "reporting requirements analysis" he'd carried out with the users. For one of the reports that had been designated "must have", he had interviewed the report recipient to find out more about what they did with it. The response: "I receive the report". When questioned what they did after that, he got: "I put it in the bin".  

The Discover phase is where you should start asking the hard questions. In the case of building a mobile reporting solution, those hard questions should be designed to qualify the mobile approach in or out. There's no point in doing it further down the line. Once the personas have been established, ask them: What do they actually need to do? ("Look at the report while mobile" is not an adequate response). Why do they need to do it on a mobile device? What manipulations do they expect to be able to perform?  

Some data visualisations work well on small form factors, some don't. What's possible, and what you should attempt, are often two very different things. Understand the reasons behind the requirements before moving on to Design. 

#2 Think "online first" 

Building solutions that work effectively offline is hard. Don't let anyone tell you differently. Yes, you can cache data on the client, but ensure you have calculated the cost-benefit ratio. How old can you allow the data to be? How much processing power does the client need to have to be able to perform aggregations locally? Does building data manipulation into the client restrict the choice of target device? Will you need to deliver and maintain separate OS-native versions of your reporting solution, or will you be able to embrace the Web-native philosophy and use the power of your backend systems into which you've poured a ton of enterprise budget as well as ton of enterprise data?  

Finding the right balance between realtime and stale data, and juxtaposing that with the balance of client performance and flexibility is something you need to achieve. Make sure you do it, and do it up front.

Design 

Discovery morphs eventually into design, which is equally as important. Once you have the outline solution, you need to refine it so that not only will it be useful, but deliverable too.  

#3 Encourage the solution's use 

Leading a horse to water and making it drink are two separate things. So are making a reporting solution available and getting the users to engage with the data. Once you've identified the solution approach at a high level, you need to design it to be as engaging as possible. It's time to mention User Experience (UX), and in particular, to consider what aspects are required to make good UX a reality in the case of a mobile reporting solution.  

Time-to-Insight is a term I've just made up, but it expresses one of the key aspects - and that is friction. Or, rather, the lack of it. How many clicks through a User Interface (UI) do my users need to get to the data they want to see, to find the insight that's waiting for them to discover?  

Remove friction by implementing Single Sign On (SSO) and allowing them to personalise their reporting preferences, either explicitly or implicitly (by observing and learning from behaviour). Consider UI aspects beyond the actual reporting presentation software itself. In the case of the Fiori Launchpad, for example, there's a blurring of distinction for many when it comes to analytics and dashboards - dynamic launch tiles can be enough for a user to satisfy some of their insight needs. Additionally, consider notifications at the device level, which serve to alert users to changes in data circumstances and nudge them towards the solution.

#4 Remain open to platform options 

Your IT department's device hardware policy may very well be a constraint in designing a mobile reporting solution, but in fact it's not as restrictive as you might first think. Have an Apple iPad only policy, or a Galaxy Tablet only policy? That doesn't mean the design of the solution needs to be iOS or Android native. When it comes to mobile, there are three general platform options: OS-native, Web-native and Hybrid. The general pros and cons of each have been compared many times before and I won't re-hash that old chestnut here.  

Let the requirements defined in the Discovery phase drive this part of Design. If you have a choice, ask yourself first why you wouldn't start with Web-native. The other two options only serve to restrict the target audience for the second most valuable asset your company has (yes, I'm saying that the most valuable assets are the people, in case you hadn't realised the extent of how much old age has mellowed me).  

Develop

You've moved down from 50,000 feet in discovery, through 10,000 feet in design, and now you're at ground level, ready to bring the solution to life. Here are a couple of things you must consider if you want to make your mobile reporting solution sing. 

#5 Work out where your data resides 

The data that will power your reports has different aspects. Location: Where is the source of truth? Stability: How often does it change? Size: How much of it is there, and what are the aggregation requirements? Different parts of the data set you're using will look different across these aspects.  

This means that you can - and must - consider the best way to manage that data. Can you preload and cache sets of values that don't change frequently? If so, how much can you afford to store on the mobile device, and how do you make the initial load painless? How much processing is required to present the data in a way that's meaningful to the user? Do you push aggregation and calculations to the server side, or rely on the device to process that locally? How does this link with users' understanding of "works offline"?  

The answers to these questions should inform how the solution is developed, whether that's a solution based on standard tools, or a completely custom approach.  

#6 Use adaptive techniques 

As likely as not, the question of "what 'mobile' means" will have surfaced in the Discovery or Design phase. If you've got to the Develop stage and it hasn't, that's a big warning sign meaning you may want to consider iterating back through those previous stages.  

The mobile platform as a target for any application solution is naturally unstable. New devices are coming out all the time, with different capabilities and screen sizes. If you look carefully at the history of the SAP Fiori Design documentation, you'll notice that one of the 5 key principles was quietly changed, without so much as a browser alert message. "Responsive" became "Adaptive", and signalled a subtle shift in the philosophy that drives how apps should respond to being executed on different devices.  

An adaptive approach should be a key consideration in how the user interface (UI) is developed. A great example of how this can be achieved is by using the facilities presented by SAP's UI5 toolkit. The support for mobile devices, device detection, and dynamic view declarations go a long way towards helping you create a solution that works not just on one device, but many, now and into the future.  

Deliver 

It's almost time to let your users loose on your solution. Before you do, remember these two important points. 

#7 Learn from your users 

This is where we can delight in the concept of "meta", so wonderfully celebrated by that most mind-expanding of authors Douglas Hofstadter. Insight about insight is what this best practice is all about. Especially when you turn that meta-insight into action. When delivering the reporting solution, include a layer of usage analytics, so that you can learn about how your users are actually using the solution. What are they selecting? How are they navigating? What parts of the solution are they not using? What times of day are more popular than others?  

We've used Google Analytics, embedded in a Fiori context via a plugin mechanism, to great effect. It doesn't have to be Google Analytics; it just needs to tell you what you need to know to take action to improve the solution over time.

#8 Protect your data 

If data is your second most valuable asset, you need to protect it. This means finding the right balance between low-friction and security when it comes to data access - not getting in the way of the right people, and totally getting in the way of the wrong people. This is where the delivery of your solution must coincide with the security policies that your organisation already has.  

If you have an OS-native solution, or a Hybrid based solution, you can bind the apps into the deployment and management mechanisms already in place for your mobile devices. If you have a Fiori-based solution, you could consider adopting the SAP Fiori Client, or a derivative thereof (with Kapsel), to participate at this level. If you have a purely Web-native solution, then you can go the Hybrid route or consider plugging in a timeout mechanism that will remove cached data and navigate away from where the user was. This mechanism can be bound into the overall reporting solution in a straightforward manner that is pretty much independent of the actual solution implementation. 

There's a lot to consider in any solution, but particularly, the combination of UX, data that is to provide insights, mobility and devices that are somewhat out of your control is a heady mixture that can cause headaches. As long as you bear these best practices in mind, you know at least you're building in the right direction.  

As Buzz Lightyear might say if he were building a mobile reporting solution: "To insight, and beyond!".

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About the author

DJ Adams

Principal Consultant & Mobile, UX and Development Centre of Excellence Lead

DJ Adams is a developer, author, speaker & teacher living in Manchester, working as a Principal Consultant here at Bluefin. He also heads up our Mobile, UX and Development Centre of Excellence in the UK.

He has a degree in Latin & Greek (Classics) from the University of London, and despite having been referred to as an alpha geek, can nevertheless tie his own shoelaces and drink beer without spilling it.

He has written two books for O’Reilly (Programming Jabber and Google Pocket Guide), co-written and edited a book on UI5 and is a co-author of the SAP Press book Practical Workflow for SAP (3rd Ed.). His latest book, also for SAP Press, is SAP Fiori and SAPUI5: Debugging the User Interface.

He writes posts on his own weblog, on Language Ramblings, on the SAP Community Network and here on Bluefin's website. He's been hacking on SAP software since 1987.

He is an SAP Mentor, a member of the SAP Mentor Advisory Board, and a member of the SAP Developer Advisory Board. He created one of the first SAP developer communities back in 1995, and co-created the SAP Developer Network (now known as the SAP Community Network) back in 2003.

He's been involved in teaching kids to code, ran a Code Club at his local primary school, ran a centre in Manchester for Young Rewired State, and has been a volunteer at Manchester CoderDojo.

He is married to his theoretical childhood sweetheart Michelle, and has a son, Joseph, of whom he is very proud.