Enable self-service BI and Analytics with SeekTable – a super simple online pivot table solution

There are many dashboard solutions out there these days. They all compete on similar features like top visualizations, data connectivity, usability and simple data processing. The simplest form of self-service analytics, however, is not getting much love from these solutions. And what is the simplest form of self-service analytics? Well… pivot tables of course.

Known mostly thanks to MS Excel, pivot tables have been a handy tool for analysts and business people alike to quickly sift through data and get quick insights. They have been in use for a long time and everybody who has done complex analytics in Excel knows them. But of course, as we say around here, while Excel is a great tool, it also comes with a lot of problems, especially today with data coming from many sources and in different sizes.

Problems with standard MS Excel pivot tables

The problems with standard Excel pivot tables are the usual ones that analysts and BI experts encounter normally.

One source of truth goes out of the window. It’s fine downloading a spreadsheet, but then time goes by and well the doubts quickly come of which spreadsheet should you trust, or which data point is the correct one. People will end up with different versions of the same data and discussions will start on who is using the correct report.

Data size is limited. Of course MS Excel is allowing bigger and bigger datasets, but it just cannot compete with a proper database. Eventually the main limitation is the RAM of the specific computer station the user is using. Even if Excel allowed bigger limits at some point we would hit the workstation limitations.

Reports are scattered and difficult to share. Today we all work in a team and all need to share insights. The old pattern of emailing reports, however, quickly becomes a drag as it becomes increasingly difficult to quickly find the insights at the time of need.

It’s very manual. Having to download data to then build pivot tables and build insights is one of the most tedious, slow and error prone process there is when it comes to BI and analytics. If there are many reports like this around, it is not uncommon to see companies that hire people whose only job is refreshing Excel reports.

Enter the online pivot table with SeekTable

But MS Excel pivot tables are easy! We all know them, they have almost no learning curve as everybody that has analysed numbers knows them, can we get them back? Well, yes! The answer is SeekTable.

SeekTable is a tool to quickly build an online pivot table on a database table. You just need to connect SeekTable with your database and it’s done, you now can quickly publish your cubes to your analysts and business users.

Business users will be able to quickly learn the basics of SeekTable as it looks pretty much like an Excel pivot table. Here is a screenshot:

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The magic happens on the right column:

  • Rows is where dimension columns can be selected. We can keep adding as many columns as needed
  • Values is where measures can be selected. It is possible to use different aggregation types like sum, average and count
  • Filter is where dimensions can be filtered. We can type directly a dimension value and the filter will automatically pick the right dimension

Once done with the settings and happy with the results, we can save the report. This means we now have a report that will automatically update every time the underlying data table changes. We have now finally moved away from manually updating spreadsheets!

Reports in SeekTable can also be shared or exported in a number of different formats. Especially neat is the Excel pivot table export functionality. No we don’t advocate for Excel exports with this tool, but we know some people are die hard Excel users and this functionality will make it easy for them to adopt the reports.

Or just use a flat table structure that looks like an Excel worksheet

SeekTable also supports flat table reports. A flat table report is one without summary levels, it looks a bit like a plain spreadsheet filled with data with no other structure or formatting whatsoever.

You can see how it looks below:

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The interesting thing here is the Filter. We can type any value that is present in any of the columns of the flat table and SeekTable will know what to do. This is very handy when we want to quickly sift through data at a line item level.

Talking to the SeekTable founders, flat table reports are used quite often in the cloud solution. This makes sense as a lot of users either need to just see a couple of data points, or want to just have an Excel download. We do all agree that downloading data in Excel is a bad idea, but if we make it difficult users will find other ways to do it, making it available and simple first of all increases adoption, then keeps us in control of how the data is used (no shadow IT practices).

With SeekTable you can just search for your data insight

SeekTable has many features and we will not go over all of them here, but a very cool one that deserves mention is the “Ask a question” one. We tried it out and it works well for simple questions.

“Ask a question” allows the user to simply type what he or she is looking for, questions like:

  • Sales by year
  • Product ABC sales

work very well. The user is then directed to a normal SeekTable report built to answer the question being asked. Here is how the “Ask a question” looks:

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We can see that each data cube (an SQL database table) has its own “Ask a question” section. This works well if the question is over an insight that can be answered with data coming from that specific cube, while it will not work if multiple cubes need to be put together (and this would be an extremely amazing but complex functionality to build).

Right now “Ask a question” works only with CSV data sources but the founders of SeekTable are looking into future enhancements to enable databases too.

Charts and drill downs

Another 2 cool features of SeekTable are charts and drill downs. You can see a screenshot of both below:

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In order to add a chart to a report, we can just select the chart type on the Chart field on the right Fields section. We can select between multiple types of charts of course.

Finally, every cell in a table has a drill down capability. In the screenshot above we show how we can further drill down sales in Austria by a number of available dimensions. This functionality offers powerful exploration capabilities and it is really useful for users that are looking for quick insights.

How to use SeekTable

Firs of all, if you are interested you can try this tool out right now, they have a cool demo, just head over here to play with it.

SeekTable comes in 2 forms: on premise version, or cloud. You can use the cloud version of SeekTable right now, just connect it to a database or to a csv file and here you go, ready to build online pivot tables. If your company is OK with a cloud solution, you can in fact use SeekTable right now, for free, on top of your database tables.

There is also an on premise version of SeekTable that is currently also free unless you need a white label solution (details here). There is a planned release of SeekTable in autumn that will add more enterprise features (like better user management), those features will be available with a paid version of the product. The pricing will be on a server basis.

One cool thing to notice is that you can connect SeekTable and hence start building online pivot tables also on top of MongoDB and ElasticSearch. Those are 2 very common no sql databases that normally do not work well with SQL solutions. The ElasticSearch integration is especially exciting as this is a very good database for analytics that is currently lacking a wide selection of BI solutions.

But what about Tableau, PowerBI and dashboard tools in general?

The reality is that it depends. If you have a visual audience that wants to interact with the dashboard in multiple ways, then a robust dashboard tool will serve you better. If you, however, have users that want to see just a plain crosstab or that spend today a lot of their time on Excel, then SeekTable will serve them better.

What happens a lot with dashboards is that they require a steeper learning curve. This then means that we get only few content (dashboard) creators and a lot of consumers. In fact, with tools like SeekTable that mimic MS Excel we can push adoption further down the road and make everybody, or almost everybody, a content creator. Driving that “everybody is an analyst” strategy is easier with tools that can be learned quickly and that don’t feel too new to the users.

SeekTable has also an interesting price which will favour adoption – you are not limited by the cost of single user licenses. This is in fact quite important as adoption and cost of ownership do tend to go hand in hand, especially if you have to convince your IT department to adopt a specific tool.

If you need to do complex charts or in general need a complex enterprise solution, then Tableau or PowerBI or anything in that realm will probably be a better choice. But if your users are just asking for some good old crosstabs, then SeekTable will make them happier.

Conclusion

SeekTable can be a great addition to an existing BI stack or even a new tool in an emerging one. What we see is also companies using SeekTable together with dashboard tools. In that architecture we would use SeekTable for crosstab type reporting, then we would use tools like Tableau or PowerBI for the visual type of reporting. There really is a good case for using both type of solutions in the right way to cover all the business requirements.

If you need an online pivot table or simple crosstab type of reporting, then SeekTable will be a great solution. On the self-service front it is by far one of the best tools to enable everybody to do analytics and to build reports due to its smooth learning curve.

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