Not enough focus on function? One BI expert reviews SAP Lumira

There's a lot to like in SAP Lumira, but there's still plenty of room for improvement, writes BI expert Ethan Jewett in this detailed product review.

SAP Lumira is SAP's main self-service data visualization toolkit. The idea of Lumira is to take a spreadsheet or

database table and provide an intuitive way to quickly load the data and create different visualizations. Because creating different visualizations in tools like Lumira is so fast, one can use the tool to explore data through different types of visualizations. Because of this, tools like Lumira are sometimes called data exploration tools.

SAP Lumira was first developed by SAP under the product name SAP Visual Intelligence and it shares a code-line with SAP's Predictive Analytics offering, which is very similar to Lumira, but with additional statistical analysis and data acquisition capabilities (and additional cost). Lumira provides a free offering, which can only access data in Excel or CSV format, as well as a paid version that can connect to various databases including SAP HANA and to BusinessObjects Universes. There is also Lumira Cloud, which SAP maintains as a place to publish and share datasets and visualizations. The paid version of Lumira can also publish via BusinessObjects Explorer (a separate product).

Current version

SAP Lumira is still in rapid and early development, with features being added frequently to fill out both its visualization capabilities as well as to check the "enterprise readiness" boxes. While version 1.15 was a fairly minimal feature release, the most significant recent features prior to 1.15 were the ability to build "stories," which are a linear collection of visualizations, as well as BusinessObjects Universe connections. Both features are scheduled to be enhanced in 1.16, along with multiple other improvements.

Who it is intended for

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The target audience for Lumira is business users who want to be able to quickly analyze and visualize their data without relying on report developers. In many ways, the development of Lumira is a response to the success of data exploration and data visualization tools like Tableau and Tibco's Spotfire. Despite being late to the game, Lumira beat its competitors to market with some features like support for larger data sets in its free version, stories and (of course) integration with SAP HANA and the BusinessObjects platform. That said, in my experience, Lumira still trails its competitors in key areas like user experience and quality of visualizations.

Strengths and weaknesses

So what are Lumira's strengths and weaknesses? It looks good. Lumira is a very attractive product, which is impressive given SAP's history here. But the beauty of the application only goes skin-deep. Some of the visualizations, especially the 3-D versions, are very pretty but are fundamentally flawed. 3-D has its detractors (and I am one) but 3-D can be done well or poorly. Lumira definitely does it poorly.

Similarly, the data handling capabilities, like the ability to create custom measures, are nicely implemented but limited and hindered by design issues. For example, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) data uses average values, so in order to determine totals, a calculated measure (average cost x number of occurrences) is required. But Lumira doesn't aggregate this calculated measure in a meaningful way and gives no warning that this may be an issue.

Lumira weakness is poor 3-D pie chartFigure 1. An example of a very poor 3-D pie chart. The tops of slices should never be obscured.

It's also usually very fast, even for large flat file data sets. I loaded the recently released CMS charge data in to explore (a 1.8 GB, 9 million row, tab-separated file), and it was pretty snappy -- except when it inexplicably wasn't.

I was left wondering what was going on multiple times when Lumira paused to think for long periods at points during the process of building a visualization when it didn't have enough information to render the visualization. Once enough information was provided (by adding additional dimensions to the visualization), the visualization rendered quickly. It seems to me that the design focus of the application is on appearance but not enough on function.

Data exploration with LumiraFigure 2. Data exploration with Lumira is pretty, fast and intuitive (usually).

Recommendations

My advice is to try it out for yourself. Compare and contrast SAP Lumira and its close competitors. In SAP or BusinessObjects environments, Lumira offers many distinct advantages over its competitors, though those advantages need some additional maturity. Even in non-SAP environments, it is better in some ways, though it continues to struggle with fundamental user-experience and visualization issues.

This was first published in May 2014

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