“O Deep Thought computer,” he said, “the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us….” he paused, “The Answer.”   “The Answer?” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to what?” “Life!” urged Fook. “The Universe!” said Lunkwill. “Everything!” they said in chorus. Deep Thought paused for a moment’s reflection. “Tricky,” he said finally. “But can you do it?” Again, a significant pause. “Yes,” said Deep Thought, “I can do it.” “There is an answer?” said Fook with breathless excitement. “Yes,” said Deep Thought. “Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But, I’ll have to think about it.”

Recognize where this is from? It’s the moment in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where the universe’s smartest minds come together to build an all-powerful supercomputer with limitless knowledge.

The trouble is, when the scientists in the story ask it for that all-encompassing answer to the meaning of life, the computer takes millions of years to process the data. Then, it gives them this:

“Forty-two!” yelled Loonquawl. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”

“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

… Sound familiar to you?

Okay, this might be science fiction, and we mere mortals are yet to invent an intergalactic supercomputer. But when it comes to the problem of applying the gigantic swathes of data we collect on a daily basis to any useful purpose, Adams has the problem nailed.

Because yes, big data is a great, sprawling mass of knowledge with the phenomenal potential to offer up valuable business insights. But only if:

… You know how to zone in on exactly what you want.

… You know how to interpret it correctly.

… And you know how to frame your questions so that the answers you get end up making sense.

For the vast majority of businesses, this is pretty tricky. Modern business intelligence software can enable business users to get the answers they need without an expertise in data analysis, but many organizations still struggle when it comes to driving adoption. The question is, how do you put insights directly in the hands of business users, in a way that they can understand and appreciate?

Enter the Hero of the Hour: Chatbots

As AI becomes more and more sophisticated, tech innovators are building it into their consumer-facing and enterprise products in ever-smarter and more sophisticated ways.

One trend, in particular, that’s gaining traction is natural language processing (NLP).

Basically, this allows humans to “talk” to computers using normal, natural-sounding language, rather than in structured, precise programming languages that IT professionals use.

You’re probably already familiar with features like Siri, or with search functions that can recognize variants of the same question or search term, or with the voice recognition systems that services like phone banking use to get to the right department.

These are at the most basic end of what we’re talking about here, but you get the idea. When these tools work at their best, they can process what you’re saying, even when you use different sentence structures or imperfect phrasing. They then make an intelligent interpretation of what you need and serve it up in a language you understand.

Applied to business intelligence, bots can work like a personal data assistant – but a lot faster.

By interfacing with your existing dashboards, a bot can delve into all kinds of data sources, internal measuring systems, accounts, and reports. With bot-friendly services such as Slack and Facebook Messenger, users can ask analytical questions directly in the messaging apps they are already using.

Your BI bot can then amalgamate and translate these shreds of information into everyday language and visuals to help you answer key questions in the blink of an eye.

How Does that Work in Real Life?

Imagine, for example, you’re about to walk into a meeting and you want up-to-date, granular information about your sales figures and the factors behind them.

You don’t just want the headline numbers, you want to be able to tell your C-Suite exactly which regions or target markets are seeing the most growth. You want to give them a clear idea of how these sales figures link up to different marketing drives. You want to give quick, accurate projections of where demand is likely to increase and whether you’re poised to meet it. And you want that information now – without having to log in to a dashboard app and dig into the figures.

Here’s where your typical data visualization tools can feel too limiting for some users. The simpler “no-IT-knowledge-necessary” versions cut out the middleman by enabling you to interact directly with data without having to go through technical teams to create new queries – there are still times data is more impactful when you have it right there and then. A business intelligence chat bot does just that, allowing you to access vital pieces of information at any time, without having to open and search through a dedicated dashboard yourself, and in a simple question-and-answer format. You tell the chatbot what you want to know – in normal, everyday language – and the chatbot extracts all of that information from your dashboard, and gives it to you.

It Brings the Data to You

Another major advantage of bots-versus-dashboards is that you don’t have to keep “context switching” between different apps and programs to get to the data you need.

We all know how frustrating it is when you’re busy working away in one system, but find you’re lacking some essential information that’s stored elsewhere. Or perhaps you need to run a calculation that isn’t possible in whatever program you’re using right now.

This can be a productivity killer, especially when it’s just a little task, but requires you to go through the hassle of opening up another app, moving information between them and collating the results into something that makes sense.

It’s especially irritating to have to do this when so much of the way we work is moving towards a holistic style that brings everything together, letting you switch between tasks, projects, and conversations with ease.

Younger generations, in particular, are more comfortable with rapid, text-based communication, and actively seek out tools that let them operate this way in the workplace.

It’s why so many businesses are moving towards team collaboration apps like Slack, Skype, and Trello. You can instant message individuals and teams, share files, make voice calls and so on in a coherent, streamlined way, without having to leave the application you’re using at that moment in time. Business intelligence bots bring these types of seamless workflows to the data-driven workspace and make it easier to incorporate data insights into daily decision making.

The bot becomes just another window – a text-based conversation you keep going in much the same way you might with a member of your team.

Speak Like a Human, Not a Robot

As the business apps we use day-to-day embrace more and more features built on AI, machine learning, and natural language processing, you will barely distinguish the way you communicate with your technology from the way you communicate with your colleagues.

This goes a step further than other NLP-based business intelligence tools by syncing directly with your chosen communication or collaboration app.

You can bring the bot into your team chats through Skype, Slack or even Facebook Messenger and ask it, for example, to summarize your sales dashboard. The bot will fire over highlights of the most important things you need to know in text and graph form.

As our very own Guy Levy-Yurista, Head of Product at Sisense, explained to Venture Beat:

“This allows people to use natural language in order to ask for information from this bot and receive a combination of natural language responses, much like you would when you communicate with a friend, and widgets, images, and charts that allow you to both consume the data visually but also drill and analyze the data.”

In short, it saves you trawling through a conventional analytics dashboard to copy and paste important data for your colleagues.

It means you don’t even have to leave your current conversation window to grab instant, essential insights.

And it makes it that much easier to get answers you understand to the really big questions you need to ask.

Want to see our Sisense chatbots in action? Click here to find out more