Alteryx is a structured and unstructured “data blending” vendor that makes the jobs of data scientists easier. Alteryx tools enable data scientists to run disparate data sources together into an analytics composite without the use of manual spreadsheets that quickly become difficult to manage, or that “top out” because they simply don’t have enough columns to handle all of the data.

But three and a half years ago, things changed when Alteryx hired its first gaming programmer and producer.

“We had a feature rich product and an established customer base, but we wanted to expand the use of the product to new customers,” said Laura Sellers, Alteryx vice president of product management. Alteryx performed “intercept studies,” where it observed how customers were using its tools. “In the studies, we could observe people trying to use the product, and also where usability could be improved,” said Sellers. “Now, we have really moved the needle dramatically because of our focus on usability. These users are not only using the tools more easily, but they are rapidly building out workflows that help them in their data analytics work.”

Sellers explained how bringing in video game developers — and a video gaming philosophy — has helped to improve usability and perceived business value of Alteryx’s big data analytics tools.

“We learned from our observations of end user usability that, as in video gaming, users want choices, but not too many of them,” she said. “In a video game setting, new features and functions are introduced, and the game players learn these as they play the game. In our world, we wanted to exploit our product’s drag and drop features so that users could intuitively learn these and then apply them in more advanced ways — like configuring big data analytics workflows.”

Alteryx also uses an Agile application development methodology for its product, and adopted the rapid prototyping, feedback, and discards of product development that are common in gaming software production. “We pull out the prototypes that don’t work and advance the prototypes that do work in the application development process,” said Sellers. “This is a rapid application development process that complements our product philosophy well, because we don’t want to present ‘stale’ product to our customers.”

Also like video gaming, Alteryx obtains opt-in permission from its users to track their usage patterns with the software. “This assists us in better understanding the end users’ experience with our software, which features of our product are most widely used, and how to make our tools better,” said Sellers. “We have also built a customer ‘community’ much like video games, where customers are eager to contribute feedback in both beta testing and live use of our products. It is helping us to make our product ‘smarter’ and more responsive to our end data analyst and scientist users.”

By making the job of data science more user friendly and understandable for data analysts, companies like Alteryx can deliver tangible business value to organizations that continue to seek solutions for their big data analytics needs.