Guest Commentary: Next Generation of Visualization and User Interaction

I was recently invited to participate in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Center for Transportation & Logistics’ roundtable focused on the trade-off between planning and execution. The event spanned two days and presented an agenda of discussion topics across the multiple time horizons of planning (strategic, tactical and operational) as well as views on process and technology. The audience was comprised of an excellent collection of experts, including practitioners from a variety of industries, academics and a few of us from the software solution industry. The format of the roundtable entailed a number of session topics complemented by a series of interactive polls designed to spark and stimulate active discussions among the group, which was expertly facilitated by Dr. Chris Caplice, Executive Director of MIT’s Center for Transportation & Logistics.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog was the final session entitled “Software Provider Perspectives.” In this session, my industry peers and I were asked to give a brief presentation on some of the underlying concepts and approaches to our respective solutions, as well as give a view into what we see as the future of the planning and optimization space. This was followed by a lively and very interactive group discussion on the challenges, limitations and opportunities of technology in this domain. In particular, my peers and I were keen on listening to what the users of our capabilities had to say.

The discussion was lively and easily the most interactive of all the sessions, and while there were a number of concepts bandied about from buying/selling behavior to optimization approach, there was one particular view that emerged consistently at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The issue was visualization and usability.

As views were shared and opinions presented, the topic of usability, information (not data) presentation and overall visualization appeared to be the hot topic. In particular, the need for more intuitive interfaces that mask complexity, define metrics, and aggregate views designed to synthesize the abundance of available data into something actually digestible for both the day-to-day user as well as the supply chain senior executive. I cannot say this was surprising as the industry as a whole has been so focused on making more sophisticated solutions that it is easy to see how the solving technology has outpaced the focus on user interaction. That being said, however, a key salient point that emerged was that despite the desire for better interaction, it was clear that better interaction did not mean simplifying the underlying engines. There was no complaint about sophistication or approach and that a “simple” user interface did not diminish the need to be able to solve complex problems. The ideal was the merging of these two paradigms into one.

As the discussion continued, we began to engage on where we thought this might go, and in particular, the role newer user interface and visualization technology might have in the world of sophisticated supply chain planning. No one had a definite answer but here are a few directional thoughts that, in my view, are critical when thinking about the next generation of user interaction:

  • A picture is worth a thousand words – As a rule, people understand and react to images better than they do streams of data and tables. Metric-enabled graphics, intuitive and directional alerts and representative maps can all be effective tools to communicate information to a user.

  • What I want, when I want it – Configurability is becoming more and more important as an enabling factor to user productivity. The ability to not only decide what I want to see but also the sequence and importance can dramatically increase ease of adoption.

  • More than one way – Mobility has become a fact of life for the average consumer, let alone the supply chain practitioner. Enabling views on multiple formats for different levels of the organization without having to be a slave to a desktop creates organizational synergy.

  • Enable change – I have long been a proponent of the interoperability between planning and execution in the transportation space. Along those lines, interfaces should provide effective ways for users to digest and act on rapid changes that occur within their domain through a combination of sensitivity-based alerts, embedded actionable analytics and powerful underlying engines that can weed through available “big data” and suggest courses of action.

It was an exciting and rewarding experience sharing and interacting with my peers and customers in an open forum. I listened and learned and I particularly enjoyed discussing and speculating on where we could go. It will interesting to see the fruits of our debates unfold.

Fabrizio Brasca is vice president, global logistics, JDA Software. He is responsible for developing innovative transportation and logistics strategies across all industry verticals.