Silver Bay Marina Breakwater: A Beautiful And Rusty Adventure In Northern Minnesota

Serendipity is wonderful.

Sometimes, something passes you by for a split second. You observe it, photograph it in your mind, try to make sense of it, and determine that what you just witnessed seemed exciting, and that you should go back, spend some time re-visiting it, and figure out if it was really that exciting or a damp squib.

It was a cloudy, July morning – not too hot but a bit unusually chilly from all the (Superior) lake wind. Driving back from our camping trip up north in Minnesota, we passed a spot on Highway 61 that had many docked boats. There’s nothing special about docked boats but what really caught my attention was a breakwater extending into the lake. The glimpse that I caught of the breakwater, for a fraction of a second, was enough for me to exclaim in excitement in my mind. It seemed like something I had never seen before, and something told me that it was worth visiting. It seemed like a (not so) hidden gem – something that people would pass by without even noticing. That’s what even we almost did. We did notice it but didn’t stop to see what it really was.

In case you didn’t know, Lake Superior is a giant water body! It’s grandiose beauty extends for miles, in every direction. At various intervals on the north shore, there are several points of interest. However, this, what I had just observed seemed a little unmarked. It had boats which meant that people definitely visited it, but it must only be the ones with boats, right? Why else would you want to go there?

After having stopped at some sort of a garage sale just a few miles down, we decided to head back to this spot. There was something intriguing about it, and I really wanted to check it out. I am glad I saw the name of this place written on a board right at the entrance.

 Silver Bay Marina

We went back a few miles and found this magical spot. It was the Silver Bay Marina on Highway 61. We entered, parked our car, and walked around a bit. There was a little trail, a restaurant, and a bunch of boats. And then there was the breakwater. Made up of giant boulders, it extended quite far into the lake. What was so interesting about this one was that at the other end of this breakwater, it connected to an island, which I later found out was Pellet Island.

The breakwater, and the giant boulders that made it, were very inviting. The boulders looked rugged yet peaceful. They didn’t look dangerous. The path that they made were so wide that there was no chance of us falling/slipping into the lake if we just kept to the middle. The boulders were giant enough to give us stable footholds, although you still have to be a bit cautious about where your foot lands. The breakwater is substantially long, and you wouldn’t want to frolic too much and end up twisting your ankle somewhere in the middle! Pellet Island on the other end is a beautiful reward, and once you start heading towards its direction, coming back without touching it just seemed unsatisfying – like going to a candy store and walking out without buying any.

Rusty Boulders

As soon as you start walking towards the island, you notice that the rocks are really rusty. North shore is a hub for iron ore mining. That area has Taconite and other igneous rocks in abundance, and turns out, the boulders in this breakwater comprise mostly of these rocks that oxidize when they come in contact with water and air, and form a beautiful rusty texture. They are vivid! They are bright, and have a very vibrant marigold-orange hue. Some of these rocks are covered with rust, and they are just so beautiful that you cannot help but stop and look at them in awe for a minute or so. The entire stretch of the breakwater is full of such rusty boulders!

The Ladder

A ladder?

After around a half hour of carefully jumping from one boulder to another, we finally get to the end of the breakwater. We reach the adjoining island, only to see a man made ladder hung from the top! Did I say earlier that the breakwater was inviting? There was no way in hell that we could have gone back without climbing up the ladder and going up the island to see the other side. The ladder, made purely of ropes and wooden rungs, was decently sturdy. We climbed up it, walked around a bit only to find another couple of small islands in the back covered in white. They were full of seagulls just sitting there – the wind didn’t seem to bother them at all.

We spent maybe 15 minutes up there before heading back down. Going down these makeshift ladders is always fun! With a bit of nervousness, we went down the ladder, and it took all of 15 seconds or so to set down.

It took us another 20-30 minutes for us to head back to the marina. On our way back, it was really cool to see different rust patterns on the other sides of the boulders that we couldn’t see when we were heading towards the island.

Worth It?

Totally. Check out the photos below to see what it’s like. It’s a different kind of adventure – something that you don’t come across everywhere. If you are heading to Northern Minnesota, definitely check out this breakwater at the Silver Bay Marina.

To show what the breakwater and the boulders look like on a cloudy, windy morning, I decided not to edit the photos. Click on the first one to see bigger sized photos. There’s a video right after the photos too!

 

 

Zen And The Art Of Using PowerApps For Exceptional Customer Experience

There are several touch points that a customer or prospect goes through when they are inquiring or buying a product or service. These touch points can be with a sales person, technical engineer, financial adviser, retail store employees, field technician, and many others. Through all these touch points with the company’s employees, the customer is expecting to have a smooth, easy and great buying experience. For this to happen, all internal employees need to make sure that they provide the right information at the right time to their customers.

But do our employees have access to the right information, tools, and people to provide good and accurate information to the customer? Many times, it’s not even just about providing information to customers or prospects – our own employees may not be familiar with the process in place, and they themselves may need help in getting their questions answered to get comfortable with the process.

“What PowerPoint template should I use for my presentation with the prospect? There are so many!”

“Do we give discounts to not for profits?”

“My prospect is asking for a demo this week. How do i get technical sales involved?”

“Is there a document I can read to get familiar with our sales process?”

These are some questions that typically come up in a selling process. Note that these questions need answers from a subject matter expert internal to our company. Also, know that answers to these questions are ultimately relayed to the customer. What does that mean? A timely response to your own employee’s questions result in 1) your customer getting the right information in a timely manner, and 2) at least providing a satisfactory, if not exceptional customer experience.

Our employees, who accompany our customers in their customer journey, always have such questions. How do we make sure that they are empowered in every step of the customer journey? How do we make sure that they have access to the right information at their fingertips?

PowerApps + Chat bots

Let’s first talk about chat bots real quick and debunk some preconceived notions about them. Whenever i talk to people about chat bots, I realize that they automatically and immediately associate it with customer service – picture a customer wanting an update on their delivery status. They go to a website, start a chat, ask a question about  their delivery status, and boom! They immediately get a response back that was powered by a bot. It’s great that customer service for end consumers is the first thing that comes to people’s minds, however, chat bots can be used in several many scenarios besides just tier 1 customer service.

Let’s revisit one of the questions we posted above: “What PowerPoint template should I use for my presentation?”

An innocuous question asked by a sales person. Can we not have a bot answer that question for them?

Yes. Of course we can. Not just this, but many other process, product or service related questions.

What this means is that your employees are not emailing, texting or calling each other or their bosses to find the right information. In times of needs, a beloved bot can be at their service and help them out immediately!

A Financial Planner goes to an investor, institution or partner meeting and pulls up production-sales data on their mobile device. Can the Financial Planner ask the bot for recommendations  on next best action, product or investment approach?

Yes. Of course they can, and a bot will provide them with responses and guide them through the process.

A consumer walks into a retail store. If they want to know where the slim fit jeans are or where the new fall collection is, can they just walk up to a kiosk and ask these questions?

Yes. Of course they can.

The scenarios, people involved, and circumstances may be different, but a bot can instantly provide the right information with the right context.

So, how do i create a chat bot?

There are various ways you can create a chat bot. What we are talking about here is a very specific bot from QnA Maker.ai. Why are we talking about Qna Maker? Two reasons:

  1. It is a no code solution. Yes, you read that right – it does not require any coding.
  2. It can be surfaced easily in PowerApps through an out of the box connector

QnA Maker is perhaps one of the easiest chatbots out there. All you do is go to QnA Maker.ai, sign in with your microsoft account, and head to “Create a knowledge base”. The page walks you through some very quick and easy steps, and before you know it, your bot is ready!

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Once your QnA Maker chat bot is ready, you can use the QnA Maker connector in PowerApps to surface your bot in your app. Now, anyone, either on their phone, tablet or computer can access this bot to get answers to their questions!

In PowerApps, using the QnA Maker connector, we can surface this bot in our app so that anyone can access this knowledge base at any time, and get prompt responses.

Note: I will write another post with instructions on creating a Qna Maker bot and surfacing it in PowerApps. It is super easy though, and if you don’t want to wait for my post, head to QnAMaker.ai and try it out for yourself!

What is the experience like? See it for yourself.

Sales people, financial planners, field technicians, customers at a store kiosk – everyone has the ability to get their questions answered in a matter of seconds.

Who is it for?

Currently, PowerApps’ licensing does not allow for apps to be exposed to customers, and you must have an Office 365 login to access an app. This means that definitely internal employees can use this bot app to enhance customer experience. In addition, you can also have these apps in a kiosk or computer in a store, office branch or location where anyone (customers) can walk up to it and get answers to their questions. So, even though customers cannot access the app directly on their own devices, you can provide them the ability to “self-serve” at your business’s stores or locations using PoweApps on your devices.

Bringing it all together

Businesses of all sizes have various employees interacting with customers at several stages of their selling process. The goal of any business is not just to close a sale but while doing so, wow their customers and gain their trust for a long lasting relationship. None of this is possible if we don’t provide our own employees with the right knowledge and ability to help our customers. To enhance that experience, solutions like chat bots and PowerApps play a small, yet crucial role. What’s really interesting is that “no code/low code” (which are also no cost/low cost) platforms are becoming more and more viable solutions for many business scenarios, and PowerApps and QnA Maker (and many other) are fine examples of that.

If you are wanting to empower your employees with the right knowledge and abilities, definitely explore these platforms for your needs.

Embedding A Power BI Tile in A PowerApps App For Rich Analytics On The Go

The one thing that Microsoft’s business application platform does is create an amazing amalgamation of things brought from various sources. PowerApps, makes rapid development and deployment of mobile business apps easily achievable. What it also does , very beautifully and easily, is bring in very rich analytics and insights from Power BI, Microsoft’s business intelligence solutions that makes reporting and decision making a breeze.

If you have a lot of visualizations in Power BI, you can easily add them to your PowerApps app with literally a few clicks. Let’s see how.

In Your PowerApps canvas, go to the Insert menu option and select Controls. Scroll to the bottom of the Controls list to find Power BI Tile. Click that option to add it to the app canvas.

Once the tile is on the canvas, another pane opens up that asks you to choose a workspace, dashboard and a tile from that dashboard to be displayed in the PowerApps Power BI tile.

Set those values, and hey, your Power BI tile is now embedded in your PowerApps app! You can add as many Power BI tiles as you’d like.

 

Bringing It All Together

PowerApps has its own visualizations capabilities but they are extremely limited in what they can do and display. The ability to bring in Power BI tiles so easily gives access to very rich analytics. This also lets PowerApps developers use visualizations created by someone else – possibly someone on the data side who understands analytics needs of users better than the developers.

Embedding Power BI Tiles in PowerPoint Slides

Power BI is obviously a great tool to display and discuss analytics. It lets you create dashboards and reports with various types of visualizations that give you insights on various aspects of your establishment. But what if you are presenting a PowerPoint deck to an audience and want to include your Power BI analytics in your session? Exiting PowerPoint and opening Power BI is, of course, always a possibility, but wouldn’t it be nice if you could display your Power BI analytics right in a PowerPoint slide?

(sing the following lines to the tune of Enter Sandman by Metallica)

Exit: Press escape to get out of PowerPoint and open Power BI in a browser window

Enter: an add-in for PowerPoint called “Power BI Tiles”!

Power BI Tiles is an extremely easy to use, third party add-in for PowerPoint that lets you display your Power BI reports and dashboards in your PowerPoint slides. With just a few clicks, it brings in all the insights from your Power BI goodness into your PowerPoint so your audience could be mesmerized without you having to awkwardly press escape to exit PowerPoint and switch to a browser to display your Power BI dashboards!

Watch the following video to see how easy it is to embed Power BI tiles in a PowerPoint slide. I made this video on a (late) Saturday night at my partner’s father’s house while everyone was sleeping – hence the awkward whispering!

Two New Charts for Unified Interface in Dynamics 365

With the Unified Interface becoming more and more prominent in Dynamics 365, what with the Spring Release ‘18 announcing that there is a Unified Interface app for every module, it is time to start exploring this brand new interface in a little more detail, as well as new components (like newer charts as you’ll see below) that come with it.

In this post, we will look at charts. How do you access charts in the Unified Interface? Notice how there is nowhere you can click to the right of a view to bring in a charts pane.

Well, you click on the “Show Chart” button on the top left!

And guess what happens next? Yes, the charts pane shows up..to the left of the view!

Now, you can start selecting different charts on this pane.

Note: At the time of writing this post, the Unified Interface doesn’t let you create personal charts.

Two New Charts for Unified Interface: Doughnut and Tag

Unified Interface also has two brand new charts that the web interface doesn’t – doughnut and tag.

I, personally, am not a fan of pie charts and there are several others out there who don’t. If you like Doughnut charts better than pie (or are just a fans of it), the Unified Interface lets you create them! If you open any entity in a solution and go to charts, you will notice two charts – doughnut and tag.

The doughnut chart is very similar to a pie chart. Add legend entries and categories to this chart just as you would to any other chart.

Notice how it doesn’t show a preview of the chart.

After saving and publishing, this is what it looks like in the Unified Interface.

Similarly, the Tag chart lets you create tags with a count, sum, average, min or max in parentheses.

 

Just like the Doughnut chart, Tag chart does not provide a preview either.

Once published, this is what it looks like in the Unified Interface.

One thing to remember is that at the time of writing this post, these two charts are only available for the Unified Interface. Switching to the Web Interface does not display these charts.

 

App Designer In Dynamics 365 Makes Creating Views Easier, Quicker And More Fun!

If  you haven’t looked at the “App Designer” in Dynamics 365 yet, you immediately should. The App Designer totally changes the way we approach designing views, dashboards,  charts, and even the sitemap!

The app designer makes creating and editing various components of your CRM a piece of cake. Not that it wasn’t easy to create them before! The App Designer makes everything more intuitive and faster – it saves a bunch of clicks that traditionally can be a tad bit annoying, especially if you are creating several views, charts, dashboards etc.

Let’s look at how you can use the App Designer to create a new System View.

App Designer

In order to get to the App Designer, go to Settings-> My Apps under Application.

The My Apps area shows you all the “apps” you have access to. Think of an app as the traditional Sales, Customer Service, Field Service, etc. modules. Choose the app you want to add a view to, click the ellipses on the top right corner of that app, and select “Open In App Designer”.

 

In the App Designer canvas, you will see a list of all entities, along with blocks that are labeled Forms, Views, and Charts. On the top, you will also see the Site Map for this app, as well as dashboards.

Clicking on  “Views” for a certain entity will show a list of all system views available on the right. What’s nice about this list is that it categorizes all the views so you know what kind of views are available, and how many. Let’s go ahead, and create a new view by clicking “Create New”.

 

The next screen shows you a canvas with three areas. The top lets you set filters the way you normally do. In addition, you also see what the view looks like right below it. By default, it has one column but you can add as many columns to your view from the list of fields to the right (under Components).

There is also a “Search” box you can use to look for a specific field, in case you have hundreds of fields on your entity. Here, we searched for fields that have the text “phone” in them. From the results, we dragged and dropped “Main Phone” to add as a column to our view.

After adding as many columns as you want (or vice versa), start setting your filters. You will notice that as you add more filters, your search results below update instantly. This is different from how it is with the “traditional” mechanism where, when creating system views, you do not get to see what the results look like unless you publish it and go to the view directly.

This short 40 seconds video shows the process. Notice how the results below change as the filters are added on top.

Once you are satisfied with this view, go ahead and give it a name – either right under “Columns” or under Properties. Then Save it.

Bada-bing-bada-boom! Your view is now ready. Go to Accounts, and look at your System Views. This new view will be in that list now.

This is what it looks like in the Unified Interface.

 

Modifying Views

Making changes to columns is super easy too. As you increase and decrease the column width, you can see the results right there and then. Drag and drop columns to rearrange their orders.

 

Conclusion

As you can see, the App Designer brings a refreshingly new, versatile, quick, and easier way of creating views. This makes creating views much more fun, and saves a bunch of clicks, time, and ultimately frustration.

Exporting Microsoft Flow From One Environment And Importing To Another

If you’ve jumped onto the Microsoft Flow bandwagon, you know already how easy it is to create them. Did you know that you can also export them from one environment, and import them into another? The process is straightforward (As it should be!) but there are a few things you need to keep in mind to make the export and import successful.

First, let’s look at the two environments. In the environment below (let’s call it Environment A), I want to export the first Flow into a different environment, where it doesn’t exist yet.

The second environment (let’s call it Environment B), where it needs to be imported, looks like this (sans the RSS/LinkedIn Flow).

Now, in order to export from A, we will click on the three ellipses on the desired Flow, click Export, and choose Package (.zip).

You would think that selecting that option just downloads a .zip file for you. Instead, it brings you to a different screen where you give the package a name, and an optional description. At the bottom, notice the “Import Setup” column.

The Import Setup for the Flow defaults to Update. What it means is that it assumes this Flow exists in Environment B already, and that it will just update it with any changes it may have. Click Update, and choose “Create as new” so that a new Flow is created in B. Click Save to exit the screen. Finally click Export to download the .zip package file.

 

Export DONE.

Now, go to Environment B. Go to My Flows, and click “Import”, and upload the .zip package.

Here, notice the red ! next to the Flow and connectors required. Even though in our Export process, we had setup the “Import Setup” to Create New, it still defaults to Update. Click Update, change this to “Create New”, and Save. Now notice the red ! disappear.

For the connectors, click on them one by one. If a Connector exists already, it will show it to you in a list from where you select it. If it doesn’t exist, it will ask you to create it (by clicking “Create new”).

After you click Save, and take care of the Red ! for the connectors, click Import. A successful import shows the following screen with green check marks.

After the import is done, you will see the new Flow in your new environment, already turned on!

Using Power BI to Provide Recommendations To Website Visitors

When we hear about business intelligence tools like Power BI, the first thing that comes to mind is reporting. Typically, we associate “business intelligence” with reports and analytics that help people make decisions, and generally speaking, these “people” are internal users at an organization (sales people for example), their managers and/or leaders who are responsible for the growth and direction of their respective teams, departments, business units or the entire organization. But why can’t this same intelligence be shared with their customers so they can make decisions for themselves too?

Power BI’s ability to expose reports and dashboards externally (on a website; in an email) can be extremely insightful for the audience that has access to it. Any organization, not for profit, agency or establishment that deals with/has data can make meaningful reports for its customers so they can make their own decisions.

Let’s look at an example.

Let’s say we are a “Yelp” like organization that provides recommendations to our customers on what to do when they go to a certain city. When someone visits a new place, let’s say lower Manhattan, they would want to know places for dining (different kinds of food), shopping, nail salons, night clubs, post offices, and visitor centers, among many other places. To find these recommendations, they like to come to our website, find out what’s around them in their new city, and then decide what they want to do, and where they want to go. What’s the easiest way to expose this information to our website, especially if we have all this data in our CRM?

With Power BI, you can create graphical dashboards/reports with such information really quickly, and embed them on your website. In this example below, we see four components – (1) a map that shows physical location of all sorts of establishments in lower Manhattan, (2) a couple of lists that lets the user choose a primary (eating, shopping, nightlife) and secondary (Indian, Italian, fast food; chocolates, cigars, cars; club, bar) category, (3) a third list that shows the actual names of location, and (4) the last list that shows the address of selected location.

(Note: This is fully functional embedded Power BI report – play with it!)

 

At first glance, as a visitor coming to the website, I have a few first impressions:

1. Looking at the map, I know I have several options in the lower Manhattan area. The legend also really quickly tells me what kind of options are available.
2. The four lists tell me that I have the ability to really drill down/ narrow down my choices. I like that I have the options and sub-options (dining->type of food, for example).
3. Totals: I know that I have 764 options to choose from. (As I drill down, I also notice that these totals change to reflect the available options for a given primary or secondary category)

There are a few options I have here as I start interacting here.

1. I can either zoom in and out on the map, and start clicking specific locations. The lists on the left update with information on what exactly that location is. Just bringing my mouse on a location pops up for more information about it.


(Note: Interacting with this map on an iPad or iPhone does not bring up the popup)

2. Or, I can start drilling down on the lists to the right. I will start with the Primary category, then choose secondary, and then find a location I want to go to. Doing so will also tell me the exact location on the map, and also the address of it on the last list.


3. I don’t always have to start with the Primary category. I can start wherever I want, and still find the results I am looking for. For example, I can start with the Secondary category, and look for ice cream options available in the area. In our example, there is only one, and by looking at the results, I know exactly where it is.


Essentially, what we are doing here is providing the information that we house to our visitors, and enabling them to
(1) filter through a plethora of options
(2) self-serve,
(3) make their own decisions,
(4) post a photo on Instagram of the food they ate with the hashtag #bliss

We didn’t do any fancy design work, nor did we write any sort of script to create this report. All we really did was create this report using drag and drop features, and publish it to Powerbi.com from where we got the embed code that goes on our website.

 

Note: Speaking of fancy – you be the judge of the aesthetics of the report here. I like the way I have designed this report (:D) but the Power BI “designer” definitely gives a lot of options to work on the aesthetics of the report.

Conclusion

“Business intelligence” doesn’t always have to be about and for internal users. Using Power BI, we can churn out data in a meaningful manner that can be used by our customers for their specific needs. Also, these reports can be created effortlessly, without the need of a developer or a traditional report builder. The tool is extremely flexible and user friendly, and empowers business users by giving them the ability to server their customers with utmost ease and finesse!

Slight twist(!): Once the report/dashboard is ready, it can definitely be used by internal users too for their own purposes. Remember, dashboards in Power BI can be shown in Dynamics 365 with literally just a few clicks, so, internal users could just be in Dynamics 365 and access this information without having to switch to Power BI. The same report could be accessed in the mobile app in which users can annotate, and share their thoughts with others. And to take things things to a totally ridiculous level, you can even access certain type of information from these dashboards on your Apple Watch (GASP!!)! (And you thought your Apple Watch was good for just counting steps? :))

Data Source: Data.gov

Accessing Power BI Dashboard Information on Apple Watch

Since we live in a connected world now, we expect access to information all the time, wherever we may be. Luckily, our smartphones, being an extension of ourselves, make sure that we get information as and when we ask for it. Having said that, smart watches, the extension of our phones, and thus of us, have made accessing information even quicker and easier. (You knew that already, didn’t you?) With just a flick of our wrist, and perhaps a press of a button, we get a quick glance of what we are looking for.

The Apple Watch has many functions, and you are perhaps familiar with almost all of them, or at least the ones that you care for. However, did you know that you can display information from your Power BI dashboards on your Apple Watch? No need to pull out your phone out of your pocket, open the Power BI app, and finally open the relevant dashboard to look for information. (That’s way too much effort! :))

How to Make It Happen

If you have the Power BI app on your iPhone, the Apple Watch will automatically get installed on your watch. However, that doesn’t mean that all of your dashboards are automatically available on your watch also. If you open the Power BI app on your watch, this is the message you’ll get:

Photo

 

Which means that you need to sync the dashboards you want on your watch from your phone. This is how you sync a dashboard:

In your iPhone Power BI app, open the dashboard you want to sync, and press the three dots/.

When you do that, you get a pop up menu. The last option on that menu is “Sync with watch”. Just select that option, and your dashboard will be on your watch!

Once synced, this is what it looks like on the Apple Watch.

 

Numbers Only

Keep in mind that (as of now) the Apple Watch Power BI app is only going to show you numbers and KPIs – basically, anything that’s not a visualization. If you sync a dashboard that contains only visualizations, you will get this message:

 

Accessibility

Digression: If you know anything about me, you know that I am always looking at ways people with disabilities would access an app or feature.

For many people with disabilities, accessing information on their phones can be tedious and cumbersome. The Apple Watch can be a very good way for them to look at numbers very quickly with minimal effort. Blind people or anyone with hand tremors or motor skills issues can use Siri to open the app and then use the crown to scroll through the tiles. They can also enable VoiceOver (Settings->General->Accessibility->VoiceOver) on their watch so Apple Watch could read information from the tiles to them when they tap on the watch screen. This video shows how VoiceOver can be turned on, and then used, along with Siri, to open Power BI, and go through each tile with minimal effort.

Awkward note: I start showing things at around the 1 minute mark in the video below, so if you are weirded out by my incredibly beautiful yet hairy arm, it’s okay to look away for the first minute. 🙂

Conclusion

Obviously the Power BI app for the Apple Watch is not meant to get detailed insights, but if you are always looking for the latest “numbers”, whether before entering a meeting, while eating lunch at the cafeteria, during commute to and from work, or while stressing about work at home or social situations because you haven’t embraced inner peace yet,  this app can work wonders and save you some time & effort, without interrupting the current task you are focussed on.