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My Favorite Things: Tim Aston

By NICK PLOWDEN posted Thu July 23, 2020 02:56 PM


Meet Tim Aston, Offering Manager, IBM Cognos Analytics


Tim Aston joined IBM in 2008 as a developer working on IBM Cognos Analytics and related products. In 2010 he started working on a social media analytics product (later absorbed into Watson Analytics). “There’s always lots of fun stuff you can analyze on there,” laughs Tim. “You could query social posts, text, provide structure to unstructured data — there were a lot of things you could visualize. At the time it was very much a new product space; even the customers didn’t realize what the tech could do for them and what they could get out of it.”

His role soon evolved from senior developer to offering manager. In 2017, Tim switched his focus to Cognos itself, where he is responsible for global UX: top-level navigation within the product, mobile implementation, UI, onboarding, and other features. 

Tim clearly has a passion for user experience. “Early in my career we didn’t have design teams, even 10 years back you wouldn’t have seen design play such a large role in realization of features and  products,” says Tim. “So we on the development team had to learn those skills. I had an eye for design, and always felt it could be an important differentiator. I was working on smaller products in smaller teams. It was a differentiator for a little effort, compared to the cost of adding features. I was often a de facto design lead in my development roles. I still get right in there, I’ll make wireframes and sketches.”

Tim’s favorite things about IBM Cognos Analytics

Learn panel

“The Learn panel, new in Cognos 11.1.6, lets you interactively learn how to get the most out of Cognos,” says Tim. “It searches not only our support documentation but our YouTube tutorials, our community blog posts – right in a slide-out panel. Plus it’s proactive, based on where you are — it’ll make suggestions that will help you. And it’s all powered by Watson Discovery. There’s a lot of powerful stuff in there.”

Mobile app

“We’ve been working on the mobile app for a long time,” says Tim. “Cognos has been mobile-accessible for a while, but it was important to build something for the future of mobile analytics.” The Cognos design team consulted more than 100 customers about what they want to do on mobile. “Wedging desktop analytics onto a smartphone wouldn’t work — you had to do things differently,” says Tim. “We learned the key end users would be busy executives – who want to see the numbers that matter to them most over lunch or between meetings. We had to offer them a focused experience. The concepts on desktop didn’t always directly translate. So we came up with a new concept — rather than dashboards or reports, we developed pinboards — more of a birds-eye view. They allow you to view visualizations of analytics simply, maximizing the screen.”

Mobile notifications

Cognos Analytics for mobile also has a very powerful notification feature. “It will buzz or ding when something has happened to their data,” says Tim. “If key data points aren’t met, they can take action, make quick decisions and quick maneuvers. It’s designed to be easy to set up, share, and use.”

Another cool feature is that it has AI built into it. “The assistant uses the same tech we have on the desktop version,” says Tim. So not only can you type in questions like “What were top sales by product line last month”, you can use your phone’s speech-to-text translation.

Who is Cognos mobile aimed at? “The exec was our prototypical user, but it works well for anybody who has a role where they have to juggle responsibilities; they’re perhaps not at their computer a lot,” says Tim. “In roles like marketing, sales, and manufacturing, where they might be in remote settings like a factory floor, they don’t have to disrupt their workflow or carry laptops around.”

The new mobile app will be available for Cognos on Cloud customers in summer 2020, and then for on-premises customers in the fall. 

What’s next for Cognos Analytics?

“Being a tactile experience is a bit of a game changer,” says Tim. “That’s something that we’re looking forward to exploring with mobile visualizations.” Beyond the current roadmap, Tim foresees more features around filtering and drilling down, more interactivity, and more customizability. “We’re looking into more AI capabilities, such as natural language generation, forecasting, and other predictive features,” says Tim. “We expect this to be a whole journey, and this first release is step one. As we roll it out we would love to hear from customers about how they’re experiencing it.”

Check out Tim's webinar on Analytics in the palm of your hand with the new mobile app on Cognos. Post any questions for Tim in our discussion here.