Designing a data tool for everyone

Pandora Longstreth
Pandora Longstreth

It’s no shock that successful companies are driven by data and insights. But the process of getting your company’s data to reflect your business context and in the hands of decision makers can be a painful experience.

If you don’t yet have a data team, there are probably a bunch of people downloading data from different sources and manually uploading them to spreadsheets. If you do have talented data people on staff, lots still gets lost in translation between business needs and the SQL code written by these technical experts.

At Preql, we want to give you control over how you define metrics and build out your reporting — whether you’re the CEO of a startup or a Rev Ops manager in a high growth company. That means we want to give you the power to generate reliable metrics and reports all without writing SQL.

We’re not the first to abstract away SQL in a no code tool, and we went in fully aware of the challenges we’d face. Code is infinitely flexible and open-ended. In the world of no code, you have to be highly intentional about every bit of functionality you support. We’re also hyper conscious of what we called “SQL bias,” meaning the tendency to make your users think in terms of SQL concepts (joins, aggregations etc) even if the tool is writing the code for you. At Preql, we want our end users thinking about business context, not SQL concepts.

As a designer, it’s my job to bridge the gap between code-based, data best practices and a user interface that’s accessible and user friendly for everyone at the company.

Designing user-friendly experiences for

technically complex problems

I’ve had what’s called a squiggly career. I started in events,comms and community management at the UK nonprofit Citizens Advice, rolling out digital tools to their 30,000 staff and volunteers. More recently, I worked alongside math experts at Cambridge University Press to design an online learning and assessment tool for students. Today, I’m at Preql, designing a data tool for everyone.

Throughout my career, there’s one core thread that ties all these experiences together. I work with people who have a deep expertise in their respective fields to create user-friendly, accessible design experiences for broader audiences.

I’ve learnt a lot and grown from working across these different roles and industries. As a designer, the design process is core to how I work, but there are certain elements (or additions) that I’ve found particularly useful when designing user-friendly products that are doing technically complicated things:

1. Start with subject matter experts

Whether it’s math professors at Cambridge or data engineers at Preql, I always start a complex project by working with subject matter experts. This might be in the form of a workshop to map out a theory, a meeting to talk through concepts and resources on the topic, or a rapid-sketching session to encourage thinking outside the box.

The goal here is to get a good understanding of the problem space so you can extract the key tasks that are important for the end user to accomplish.

Afterwards, take the notes, resources, and sketches away and absorb yourself in them. For me, this often means reading example after example of SQL until I can understand how it works and identify patterns in the code.

2. Research other products

If you’re a designer, this step will be second nature to you. However, the difference here is to research products both inside and outside of the space you’re working in.

When approaching new data features for Preql, it was important to understand how other data tools approached the same problem for data people whilst also getting inspiration from non-data productivity tools (where our end users spend most of their time).

You want the interface to feel familiar enough that people know what they’re doing, but you also want to stray away from how other products are accomplishing the same task for more technical users.

Personally, I’m a huge fan of Mobbin for UX and UI inspiration.

3. Sketch and share quick concepts

This step of the design process is a great place to loop your experts back in. Get their feedback on the concepts you’ve come up with, spark new ideas, or get more information that may have been missed earlier.

Share sketches at this point — hand drawn or digitally with FigJam. Not only is it important as a designer to help you think more freely and creatively, it’s also useful to have less detail in the designs for getting the feedback you need at this stage.

If you’re sharing high-fidelity designs, you’re more likely to get detailed feedback on the UI or technical feasibility. With sketches, you can open up more opportunities for feedback that allow you to iterate on the big picture.

Once you have designs that are higher fidelity, then you can put them in front of your users. Maze is a great tool for testing designs for discrete features before they’re built.

4. Design for the future, but build value today

We all have big dreams for the products we work on. It’s useful to capture these in designs and share them with your stakeholders or team mates, so everyone’s aligned on (and are excited about) the direction you’re going in.

That said, if you jump into building the most ideal and complex design, it will take a really long time to build and you’ll probably make a bunch of mistakes along the way.

Take your vision and identify those smaller elements that can deliver value quickly whilst also building a foundation that gets you to that future state. Make a now, next, and future roadmap for these designs so work can get ticketed out or saved in documentation for later in the roadmap.

Building a product that brings value faster allows us at Preql to continuously iterate and refine our future state based on how business users are engaging with their data in a meaningful way.

Your future state will probably look very different from that early vision you shared, but that’s a good thing — it means you’re truly iterating and building based on how people are interacting with your product.

Get in touch

In this last year, we’ve gone from 0–1, officially launched our product, and onboarded new customers. We’ve designed and built a product that seamlessly connects to the apps you use where you can build reports across multiple data sources.

At Preql, we really care about user experience and we’d love to know what you think. If you’re interested in testing our product or future designs, reach out on Linkedin.

If you’re interested in seeing how Preql can help you and your team, sign up for a demo today!