Qlik asks what a difference a device makes

Donald Farmer, Qlik Inc.
Donald Farmer, Qlik

When I first heard of Qlik’s research into use of mobile devices, I thought so what? It’s an engineering problem, I said. Just figure out how to make charts work on a laptop, a Mac, an smartphone, and a tablet and be done with it.

That was months ago, when Qlik released its study of mobility use. Then I started watching my own use of these things and finally decided Qlik may be onto something. There may be more to this report than meets the eye.

I find that my keyboard, my Mac apps, my iPhone, and even my Internet connection are like best friends I fight with all the time. Before I stopped using Waze, it commanded me, “In 500 feet, turn left…” in a voice that for a second put me in an alternate reality in which red lights disappeared. At home, my iPhone goes “bing!” and my wife tells me to turn off “that bloody thing.”

The complexity only begins there. Effects of multiple devices compound when we hop from smartphone to laptop to tablet and back, over and over again.

The Role of Multiple Devices in the Workplace is Qlik’s first research report to be issued quarterly by its innovation and design team, led by vice president of innovation and design Donald Farmer. It seems to have asked questions no one else in the BI industry has asked publicly. Those start with how we’re using devices now, and what are the effects of working across multiple devices and screens?

The state of multi-screen use

As they say on the 11 O’Clock News, the story is unfolding. Anders Gran of the digital product studio USTWO sees online consumers adapting to the new range of mobile choices: Back in 2012, he said, they tended to browse, select, and buy all on the same device. That’s been changing, and he sees a trend to more device variation, where ever more people browse products on one device and buy on another. He finds that they’re still not transiting seamlessly; that may take a few more years.

The seamless transition may be a slippery slope, though. What happens when our use of these devices sets information free to roam the way it never has before? Enter the “roaming operatives,” people who are free of any physical tether. I suppose that only the holiday party might lure them in, and then just to stand talking to strangers as long as they all can stand it. I can imagine how such freedom invites new alliances across corporate lines, national lines, or across any line we know today. Perhaps the roaming operatives will even find warmth among their inanimate brethren, the “spimes[2].” A spime lives in the cloud, and may go nowhere else. (Imagine a label emerging for people, as in “He’s a real spime.”)

“Time, place, and immediacy change the way I use and utilize information,” writes Qlik design strategist Murray Grigo-McMahon. “The elaborate and artificial constraints that the schedule requires…change when I don’t have to wait. I can maintain flow…I’m always connected, always thinking.” Work-life balance becomes even trickier.

To go further might wander into science fiction, since there’s so little we know about what all this means. For now, we have observations of the present revealed in interviews conducted by Scott Humphrey of Humphrey Strategic Communications.

Deloitte’s Akshay Chopra, for example, observes that the current generation grew up using PCs and laptops, but the generation growing up now is most comfortable with tablets and touchscreens. “PCs and laptops may be relegated to secondary status among them at some point.”

A father of data warehousing, Dr. Barry Devlin, finds it interesting that BI vendors try to enable smartphones and tablets while users still seem to prefer PCs and laptops reports and dashboards. For email, users do like mobile devices. “Today’s ‘attention deficit disorder’ among business people in meetings and presentations,” he said, “is emphasized by the 60 percent of respondents who prefer or use smartphones to respond to emails.”

Flaws

Qlik deserves credit for issuing such a report. I know of no comparable report from any other vendor. I just wish it were more satisfying. It’s like a meal of cocktail party snacks: mostly delicious and appetizing but somehow short on beef.

A main course could have been made of the survey, but the results were mostly left to the reader. That’s fine when the meaning is obvious, but almost none of these results are. What am I supposed to understand, for example, from this?: 63 percent of USA-based respondents believe that multiple screens, and the flow that follows, “improves their productivity.” Is that a large portion? What did the respondents believe “improving productivity” meant? Why else would most people use multiple screens? Did the other 37 percent believe the opposite, and if so why?

About wearables, the survey finds that “only 9 percent of respondents use additional devices like smart watches while performing many activities in their daily routine.” Only 9 percent? Why is that surprising at this early stage? Also, “in all, two thirds of respondents who use an additional device spend on an average at least 40 minutes or more doing so.” Is 40 minutes a lot or a little?

Then there are the annoying weak spots, starting with the typos. They would have been caught by a professional proofreader. Also, must we hear again, in the middle of an otherwise interesting section, from the New Age fortune teller Kevin Kelly? Why not ask someone more grounded? Must we hear again about how something changes our brains? Will it change our hat sizes?

I could have done without airy words like “rhythm.” “As our behaviors change,” it reads, “so do the rhythms to which we work.” It’s one of those empty words meant to sound full of meaning but have all the nutrition of a Rice Krispie. It might be meant in the sense of tempo, such as in music or film, but if so there are better, more solid words.

What Qlik sees ahead

Despite these flaws, I look forward to the sequel. That’s where meaning might arise in more relief, as a followup survey and more interviews by Scott Humphrey track changes in mobile use and attitudes.

The report did succeed in at least one significant way: It made me look — not just at the issue of mobile devices but at what Qlik’s up to. At several Qlik events I’ve watched the game plan strengthen and mature year by year as if poising for some new game. Perhaps they believe that today’s rivals are doomed to dwell on visualization and mere data analysis long after all that becomes a commodity while a reforumlated Qlik will leap into a fertile and unpopulated new frontier. After all, that’s how they began, way back before Tableau. Don’t be fooled at where we are now, they may be signaling, look where we’re headed. I’m intrigued, and I’ll be watching on multiple devices, whatever they may be at the time.

For another view of Qlik’s research into mobile devices, see the BI This Week column “BI Futures: From Mobile-First to Multi-Screen,” by my friend and TDWI colleague, Stephen Swoyer.

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