Guided Ad Hoc Query Tool for Business Users Takes Load Off Developers

Information Builders bills InfoAssist as a do-it-yourself or "guided" ad hoc query tool for novice and power users alike

WebFOCUS from Information Builders Inc. (IBI) isn't the first tool that comes to mind when you think about an environment that's tailor made for business analysts, power users, or other business users.

For most of its modern -- i.e., its post-Green Screen -- existence, IBI has focused on what might be called industrial-strength reporting: the aggressive embedding of WebFOCUS as part of in-house applications, third-party applications, Web applications, and the like. That's why last week's announcement of InfoAssist, which IBI bills as a do-it-yourself or "guided" ad hoc query tool for novice and power users alike, is so noteworthy.

Company officials insist that InfoAssist is consistent with IBI's BI-for-the-masses mantra.

WebFOCUS was missing an important component -- an easy-to-use, ad hoc query facility. Enter InfoAssist. "At some level, it was a hole in our product line. We had to go back and say, 'How do we go and address this [need] in a way that isn't me-too?' Our belief was that you can do something new here," says Michael Corcoran, vice-president of corporate communications for IBI.

In this case, "something new" involves embedding ad hoc query capabilities inside an Office 2007-like user interface. Users interacting with the Web-based InfoAssist (it's an AJaX tool) can click on toolbar icons to drill down and uncover more sophisticated capabilities, he says.

Corcoran and IBI call this "guided" ad hoc interactivity -- or an ad hoc capability for the rest of us.

"What [InfoAssist] does is it shows you several key options, and then as you drill down to one of those things that you want to do -- whether it's getting to the data, or some [deeper] level of the formatting -- then you drill down and you start to see this [toolbar] ribbon start to change in a very context-specific way," he explains.

"If you have formatted reports, there are so many options and ways you can use this. Take something like putting totals into a report. You're putting in not just end summary totals, but doing it on page breaks or sort breaks, with different criteria," he continues. "With our product, you can be building some very sophisticated calculations, so you're mixing both logic and arithmetic within a subtotal. It can be very, very sophisticated, but you have to introduce that capability very carefully."

The idea, he says, is to expose the most important features of WebFOCUS Developer Studio -- a development environment designed primarily for coders -- in an intuitive, easy-to-use tool.

"If you look at all of the wealth and capability in the full development environment, it's certainly something that developers see and say, 'I have a lot here. This is something that in all honesty would scare the heck out of the business user,'" he says. "So you can find most of the key [features of WebFOCUS Developer Studio] in there. They don't expose themselves until it's logically the right time for them to be exposed to that user or developer."

To a degree, Corcoran says, this helps take a load off report developers -- even as it gives users more discretion as to how they interact with their data. InfoAssist won't replace report developers, he stresses. Highly-customized BI reports or applications -- designed for specific kinds of task or knowledge workers -- will still account for the bulk of BI assets, Corcoran contends. Similarly, DBAs will still have to define security permissions and orchestrate the nuts-and-bolts connectivity to back-end data sources.

"In the past, since we have all of these features, a developer would develop either report templates or business intelligence applications, but they would limit whatever functions you want to deliver, like formatting options or criteria. It was really left up to the developer to say, I can deliver that, and also based upon who you are when you log in, you see different things," he comments. "For the majority of users in the world, building a heavily customized business intelligence application is really the way to go. As users become more sophisticated, however, they can start to setup up to an ad hoc query environment."

That's IBI's secondary or pitch. There's a sense that InfoAssist is aimed at power users, but, Corcoran insists there's a clear sense, too, in which it can function as an entry point for novice users to take the ad hoc query plunge.

"Today's novice user is potentially tomorrow's power user at some point. You look at just the mass adoption and the comfort level that's being achieved very quickly. If you give these [novice users] a little bit, they tend to want to come back with more and more interaction. If you introduce a point of entry for the novice user, they grow emboldened. They say, 'I can do more with this. I can create more from scratch.' It really expands their horizons."