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Telling stories, closing deals with data visualization

At Ecolab, IT and analytics pros use visualizations and dashboards to communicate the value their services bring to customers.

One of the most important elements of an analytics project is the final output. A spreadsheet with thousands of rows is difficult to decipher; a long-form report may take hours to read and digest. That's why, concurrent with the rise in powerful analytics engines, we've seen a rise in versatile and easy to use visualization tools.

Experts say that visualization makes dry data relatable and understandable to non-technical audiences, promoting collaboration between internal teams and with customers. The best visualizations tell a compelling story and help drive sales engagements and other projects forward.

At Ecolab, a global provider of water, hygiene, and energy technologies and services, IT and analytics pros use dashboards to illustrate how much water is being saved across a customer's sites, for example. The dashboards are built in Microsoft Power BI and let users adjust parameters to get more-granular views or to model the impact of various changes to the environment.

"The ROI for our customers, when they use our technology, is really around total efficiency for their operations. So that's through water use reduction, reuse, recycling of water -- minimizing the use and impact of water," explained Kevin Doyle, Vice President of Global Digital Solutions at Ecolab. "They make judgments or assessments based on certain parameters. We get the readings out of the water - we can see it in real time, monitored 24/7."

Bhavik Shah, Application Development Manager at Ecolab, explained that Power BI enables his team to showcase their analytics work in ways that customers understand. Using APIs hosted on Microsoft Azure, Shah and his team developed mobile apps that enable users to share and interact with the dashboards whether they're on Windows, IOS, or Android devices.

When Ecolab's IT staff began migrating the company's analytics infrastructure to Azure and experimenting with Power BI, they reached out to Microsoft Data Platform Technology Specialist William Weber for guidance.

Show, don't tell

"They were looking for ways to use Power BI to surface reporting for their customers and internal teams," Weber said. The goal was to illustrate exactly how Ecolab was helping each customer. Weber worked with UI designers at Ecolab to apply some visualization and storytelling techniques.

"They were trying to convey metrics for their customers in terms of savings - measured in saved water, saved worker time, saved energy," he explained. Early iterations of Ecolab's charts were conventional and tabular, featuring numbers in a table and totals at the bottom. "It didn't really tell a story of how they got there."

With dashboard views in Power BI, Weber added, interactive graphs do a better job communicating the story. "Here's how things are looking for your account, and here's what things can look like for an individual location, and then you can drill in to each spot to see where they're seeing the most gains and where they may be falling behind," he explained. "That's really what it comes down to - the interactivity. People want to be able to interact with the data."

Power BI, he said, provides a range of ways for Ecolab's IT professionals and customers to interact with data. Internal users can access Power BI dashboards via browser, and external parties can view and manipulate dashboards that are embedded in customer-facing portals.

Advice for IT pros: Get visual

"I find that people want to put more and more on a single page, instead of having users clicking around," Weber observed. "But true ease of use is about simplifying things - getting to the nuts and bolts of what's most important. In my view, the more simple you can make it, the more focused you can make a visual, the more it's going to land with people and give them the takeaway. Then give them the self-service tools to dig in and analyze individual metrics themselves."

IT pros would do well to familiarize themselves with visualization tools now, he added, the better to communicate across business units in the future. "As they're coming out of college and even in existing jobs, people have access to more and more data," he said, "and everybody's going to need to understand how to tell a story with that."

As visualization technology becomes ubiquitous, professionals will need to use maps, data, charts, and other graphical elements to illustrate their own value and share ideas.

"IT pros are going to be the first, and it's going to spread to other parts of the organization as well," he said. "PowerBI is a free download, so jump into it and start to learn how to put visualizations together."

To learn more about Ecolab's analytics efforts and see its dashboards in action, watch our video. http://www.zdnet.com/article/cloud-strategies-advanced-analytics-drives-intelligence-at-ecolab/

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